miércoles, 15 de mayo de 2013
Interview Joe Satriani: The Reluctant Perfectionist
Joe Satriani can hear things that regular ears can’t, namely the imperfections in his own records. Even so, he seems fairly happy about his new album Unstoppable Momentum when Rock Square reaches him at his home in San Francisco. “There’s something about the rhythm of the album that feels natural to me,” says Satriani. “I dare say it’s been kind of joyous at times.”
Unstoppable Momentum has received some of Satriani’s best reviews in years. It’s the guitarist’s 14th studio album in a career that has produced landmark instrumental guitar albums such as Surfing with the Alien (1987), Flying in a Blue Dream (1989), Joe Satriani (1995), Crystal Planet (1998), Engines of Creation (2000), and Super Colossal (2006). The title track of Unstoppable Momentum sets the tone of the album right away. A palpable rush of adrenaline surges through the opening bars. Chris Chaney (Jane’s Addiction) lays down a bass line that thrums like a powerline. Drummer Vinnie Colaiuta (Frank Zappa, Sting, Jeff Beck) pummels his kit as if he was going 10 rounds with Mike Tyson. And when Satriani begins soloing over a tightly coiled guitar riff, your stereo speakers may feel as electrically charged as Van de Graaff Generators.
Apart from the sweet quiver of guitar in “I’ll Put a Stone in Your Cairn,” the album’s instrumentals are almost all up-tempo. “Jumpin’ In” has moments that nod to ZZ Top as well as a riff that sounds like Satriani’s own “Satch Boogie” turned inside out. “Weight of the World” features keyboard and clarinet riffs by Mike Keneally (Frank Zappa, Steve Vai) that sound like a cross between Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition” and the Beverly Hills Cop theme—it’s ridiculously catchy. Another standout, “Truth and Lies,” is a brooding piece that finds Satriani’s fingers going into afterburner mode over an almost hip-hop beat. It’s canonical Satriani.
The lead single, “A Door into Summer,” is the latest in a series of great instrumentals the guitarist has written about the sunny season. Satriani’s guitar seems to surf in and around the curling riff. His solos take off from the lip of the musical wave and perform dizzying aerials only to land back in perfect time to continue the ride. Only a virtuoso of Satriani’s caliber could perform such complex manoeuvers without a wipeout. The video for “A Door into Summer” features footage of Skywalker Studios in Northern California, which is where Unstoppable Momentum was recorded with producer Mike Fraser. Satriani once rehearsed for a Mick Jagger solo tour at the studios. He also recorded the past two albums with Chickenfoot, his supergroup with Sammy Hagar, Michael Anthony and Chad Smith, in its vast rooms.
We caught up with Satriani just days before his tour rehearsals with drummer Marco Minnemann (Steven Wilson, The Aristocrats) and Bryan Beller (Steve Vai, The Aristocrats) and keyboardist and guitarist Mike Keneally. “Everyone is a solo monster and a fantastic ensemble player,” says Satriani. “They’re all good writers, as well, which gives a great edge to their playing.” During the interview, Satriani chatted at length about the elusive desire for perfection during the recording of his album. He also talked about meeting the Rolling Stones, the future of Chickenfoot, and the Alice Cooper prank that got him suspended from high school.
How are you feeling about the new album?
Well, there’s always two sides to it. I guess there’s three! The first one is always, “I can’t listen to it,” because it’s always so painful to come to grips with the fact that I’ve had to stop working on it. That’s always so hard to do. Then there’s the part where I start practicing to it because I have a tour coming up, so I start to listen to it without the main melodies and solos. And I start adding to it. I call that a healing process. I start to lick my wounds and I get over the fact that I can’t work on the album but, every night on stage, I’ll have a chance to reinvent it and come to grips with the fact that I had to finish, and fix it, and put it out there in the world. I suppose the third aspect is that, sooner or later, I begin to hear it more the way the rest of the world hears it, which is very hard. Listening to it all at once and not having that musician’s ear, looking behind every note, every rhythm, every decision we made.
Some records I never get used to. Others I only take a week or so. This one has been a lot easier.
Which of one of your albums haven’t you gotten used to?
The eponymous release was so raw and revealing that it took a while to get used to. When I hear songs like “Down, Down, Down”—which, from a chord progression standpoint is one of my favorite pieces—but the recording was so raw I was not really prepared to perform it like that. But Glyn [Johns] had this idea that we would go into the studio and, just like a rough live band just record these versions, and I was prepared for multiple overdubs. I wanted to make it like a Beatles record, like Sgt. Pepper and he wanted to make it like Let It Be. But it’s a great record and I’m glad he put me through it. What’s valid or worthwhile doing artistically doesn’t ever have to be comfortable.
On this new album, you went for capturing a live band performance in the studio and then overdubbing on top of that. What was the balance you struck between the two?
That was a sly trick perpetrated by Mike Fraser. He has a great way of managing a group of musicians who are going in all sorts of directions and keeping the direction of the end result. He had a way of making everyone comfortable to just throw up different ideas and unusual performances. But at the same time, recognizing that we may have had selected guitar rhythms, melodies, solos, keyboard parts from my home studio sessions that he planned on integrating into the final product. And so he kept an eye on managing those two elements all the way through it.
I like being kicked out of the control room and thrown into the big room with the band. Letting Mike take over and telling us what to do: “Do it again. Don’t do it anymore, you’ve done it.” It’s a very liberating experience for me to just be a musician for a few weeks. And then, when I jump back behind the glass, I see all the cool decisions he’s made. It still sounds like a band in a room but it also has that depth and that drama you get when you do very artistic and careful overdubs to liven up songs and an arrangement.
The creative process of this album involved letting go of your demos and allowing the songs to evolve and develop with the musicians in the studio. Was it hard to give up that sort of control and how did it benefit the songs?
I can’t think of many instances where we changed direction. I brought in 16 pieces for the album out of about 60 that I’d written. One of those 16 was just me and an orchestra. It was already recorded, so we didn’t need to work on it at all. Out of those 16, I put just 11 on the record.
There were two that went through some interesting transformations. The title track, we had recorded about six versions of it and it was getting progressively more and more exciting as it went along. I thought we had it. I thought, “Well, this is gravy now.” I offhandedly mentioned that I thought it might be interesting to extend the outro instead of the one we had where we played 16 bars and then there was some guitar figure. I said, “Why don’t we double it and see what happens at the end?” And I said, “Vinnie, if you want to get a little looser with it, that’s okay with me.” So, we do this version but, from the very beginning of the song, Vinnie suddenly changes his part completely from what he’d been playing for the first six takes. He just played an entirely different arrangement and then when he got towards the end, he went completely crazy. He gave us this unstoppable momentum drum solo while we were all busy playing our parts. It was so brilliant. When it was over, we felt we had all witnessed a moment of greatness. I knew right away that was the take. He captured the meaning of the song in a way that the guitar couldn’t, you know, because the guitar had already done these solos and everything. But he, with his kit, drove the meaning of the song further.
Then, when we were doing “Weight of the World”—and this was after the band had left and Mike Keneally was doing some keyboard overdubs—we were thinking about what we should do with the keyboard sound versus the clean guitar sound. Earlier in the sessions, when the band was around, he’d been playing clavinet, and he had it out, so I said, “What else do you want to do? Do you want to play something funky here and there?” He said, “I’ll try something.” And then he unleashed this funk monster on us. We were just laughing in the studio because it was just so funny and at the same time it felt so good and so serious. It was uncanny what he was doing. He was just smiling and throwing down the most funky, syncopated clavinet parts while this song is pounding away. I told Mike Fraser, “That suddenly has to be turned way up. It can’t be buried. It’s become part of the melodic fabric of the song.”
I imagine there must be quite a difference between doing a lot of traditional recording where you lay down a drum track, a bass track, and then the guitar on top as opposed to the spontaneity of playing live in a room. That kind of approach allows for moments of magic to happen.
Here’s a funny thing that I’ve noticed over the years. When you get in a room with a bunch of people and the red light comes on, everyone is reacting and playing live—yes, that’s obvious, right? But, at the same time, everyone is feeling the pressure of the fact that, number one, it’s live, and number two, what’s that other guy playing? How come the third take and the fourth take and the fifth take, I’ve got to deal with these other guys who keep changing their parts? That’s why this whole idea of capturing live energy has this negative side to it.
Now, flip to another way of doing it, let’s say, with “Lies and Truth.” There’s this eerie keyboard part that I recorded at home that I decided to leave for everyone to listen to. And so Mike was improvising these incredible organ pieces where he had to play in and out of my melodies. So, Mike and Chris and Vinnie are relating to something that’s a certainty over and over again. Every take, they hear that same weird keyboard part, they hear my solid rhythm guitar punches. There’s a section of the solo where’s there’s a lot of very fast, side of the pick fluttering. It was done at home and so I decided to leave that alone. Every take, they heard the exact same thing coming in every time and it put everyone at ease. Each take, Vinnie could say, “I know exactly what that lead guitar’s gonna do and I can show Joe six ways of playing around it.”
I felt like, by having some performances that the rest of the band could rely on, could count on, always being played exactly the same way, it freed them up. Very much the way that a guitar soloist is standing in the control room and he lays down 10 solos. He doesn’t have to worry about the band changing while he’s trying to come up with something interesting. In other words, he’s got this canvas that he can go improvise around. That’s what I was trying to do this time: balance the event of getting a band to improvise, allowing Mike [Fraser] to capture us live in the studio, but also giving them the freedom to rely on certain performances always coming in the way they heard them on the first take.
On the nights that you record a live album, does the awareness that you’re recording change the chemistry of the show?
We have made a lot of live DVDs. As it’s going down, I think you feel very self-conscious about the way you sound, the way you just played something, the way you’re planning on playing something else. The whole idea of how you plan to do something and it doesn’t work out is a mental burden. How do you look? You’re staring at your shoes and wishing you’d worn your other shoes. I wish the audience was different. I wish I was in Rome and not in some other place. There are all sorts of things going on.
I can give you a perfect story about how a weird situation can turn out to be very different from the how you’re feeling it. A year to the day from when my mother passed away, I find myself in front of a bunch of 3-D cameras in Montreal, filming our Live In Montreal 3-D movie. We have one night to do it. We’re stuck on this teeny stage, which is smaller than anything we’ve played on this whole tour. Because of the cameras, they’ve placed me and Allen Whitman—my bass player—in a very different position from what we’ve been doing on tour for two months. The night before, I didn’t sleep. I was just gripped with memories of losing my mother. I thought I was over it but suddenly the grieving process came back full force. I remember showing up just a shell of Joe Satriani. Not the real Joe, you know? Right from the beginning, I’m getting feedback that’s the wrong kind of feedback, because I’ve been pushed in this new spot on stage. Everything is just kind of going wrong. At the end of the night, we run off stage and then our manager says, “You’ve got to run out and do the first song over again because the computer crashed at the beginning of the show.”
I remember coming off that stage and looking terrible. And Mike Kenneally’s behind me and he says, “What’s wrong?” And I said, “Everything I wanted to achieve, it just didn’t happen.” And he said the most interesting thing: “Well, you may not have achieved what you set out to achieve, but what you did achieve was something very special.” I don’t think I was ready for those kind words, that encouragement, at that moment. But the year that followed, as we started to work on the editing of that film, I could listen to the show for what it really was and I thought, “Well, he was right. There was something that was really great that happened with the five of us that night.”
Sometimes, when you’re in the middle of it, you’re in the worst position to actually know what it is that you’re doing. That whole thing about the red light fever and recording affecting people is true. Which is why, when people step out on stage today, and they see 2,000 camera phones filming them, it kind of spoils it. Suddenly you realize, “Oh shit, I can’t experiment anymore. I can’t try something different. I can’t play a show tonight that is unique to these people because, in a few hours, it’s going to be universal.”
There’s starting to be a backlash: Some artists such as the Yeah, Yeah, Yeahs and Steven Wilson prohibit cellphone cameras at shows. It can ruin a show if the guy in front of you is holding up his camera phone and blocking your view.
There’s plenty of reasons for asking people not to do it. I don’t think it’s ever going to go away. I was at a Rolling Stones concert the other day. It was such a great experience just to be there. I saw so many people staring at their phones. These guys have one of the most amazing stage setups you’re ever going to see in an arena. I mean, the back curtain is a floor-to-ceiling, super-high resolution screen. Close ups that make them look 30 feet tall. And the audience is missing it because they’re staring at their little 2x3 screen.
Did you go backstage and say hello to Mick?
I did! They were all in good spirits. They were all excited. You know, this is the second date of their tour, so there was a lot of that early tour buzz going around. I got to meet Mick Taylor as well. I had never met Mick Taylor before, so that was kind of a thrill. Ronnie and Charlie and Mick were all doing really well. They put on a great show. I thought Ronnie was in especially top form.
Have you ever considered doing an album with well-known collaborators, maybe even vocalists?
I done several records with Chickenfoot now and it’s always more satisfying because you can relate to a more manageable group of people and get more done. There is something funny about that whole celebrity get-together thing we always seems to weaken the final product. I worry, sometimes, that the business behind the recording will eventually weaken what you will achieve. Because everybody’s worried about how they will come off, especially if they know that they are going to be six other lead guitar players or lead singers. It’s not normal. But, at the same time, you think, “From a fan’s perspective, if you told me you had a recording of Jimi Hendrix and Jimmy Page and another song with Brian May and Billy Gibbons, I’d be crazy just trying to get a hold of them.” But I can understand now, from being on the other side of the fence, how problematic it may be just trying to get anything naturally good by putting people together.
Will there be a Chickenfoot IV album? And will Chad Smith be involved?
I do think there will be another Chickenfoot album. All Chickenfoot albums are pretty firm on the fact that it can only be us. It can only be the Chad, Sammy, Michael, and myself. We’re looking at sometime next year to get together because we’re still pretty busy.
A number of your songs are about summer, including “A Door Into Summer” on the new album. What is it about summer that inspires many of your melodies?
Growing up in New York, there was such a big difference between the seasons. I could write lots of songs about the four seasons and how they affected me so much. How so many interesting points of my life would unfold at the beginning of a new season, winter turning into spring, spring to summer, and summer to fall. I think my favorite is actually the fall season on the East coast, so I’m not sure why I’ve written so many songs about the summer but maybe it’s because I have a birthday in the middle of the summer and so, as a young kid, getting out of school, the weather getting warm, looking at three months of being at the beach most of the time, growing that one year older, which is so important when you’re young…there’s a beautiful well of material there.
It’s a bit like Alice Cooper’s “School’s Out,” right? It captures that summer feeling.
The only time I ever got suspended in high school was when I did a very lewd Alice Cooper impersonation. This guy was running for president of the class. He was the worst person ever to be considered. He was a complete screw up. There was no way he was going to win, but we decided that we had to create this campaign. We were all Alice Cooper fans and, that week, he was going to be playing at the local Colosseum. So we had this idea that we would tell everyone that Alice Cooper was going to come to our high school and do a presentation in support of our candidate. They all look at me and say, “Joe, you’re going to do it.” Because, for some reason, my hair was really long, down past my shoulders. I had that sickly look that Alice Cooper had. Someone brought in their pet boa constrictor and they did the whole makeup. So, all of a sudden, they were playing “18” or “School’s Out,” or something. I took the stage, they open the curtain, and there I am standing with nothing but a pair of ripped jeans on and I’ve got this huge boa constrictor and I’ve got all the makeup and fake blood and everything. And I run into the audience and I’m shoving this snake in front of the other students and, of course, they’re terrified. Our friend did not get elected! We were all sitting in the office of the principal and our parents are being called to come and pick us up.
New video for "A Door Into Summer" from the 2013 album "Unstoppable Momentum" featuring exclusive footage from famed Skywalker Ranch where Joe recorded the new album with Mike Keneally, Vinnie Colaiuta, Chris Chaney. Album available May 7, 2013.
By Stephen Humphries