Joe Satriani Interview
We spoke with Joe a year-and-a-half ago to talk about his 30th Anniversary Tour in recognition of Surfing With The Alien. On February 22, 2018 Joe will be bringing this year's G3 Tour to the Rocksino along with Phil Collen of Def Leppard and John Petrucci of Dream Theater.
We hope you enjoy this interview we did with Joe from 2016.
Greg Drugan: Hi Joe, thanks for taking a few minutes to talk today. From where are you calling me?
Joe Satriani: I’m calling from Denver, Colorado.
GD: How is the tour going so far?
JS: We started the tour a few weeks ago. Actually, this is the second leg of the tour. We started last September in Europe and we did nine weeks then took a little break. So we’ve been out a few weeks with this “Evening with” tour.
GD: At what age did you start playing guitar?
JS: Fourteen. I was actually a drummer at nine and took lessons and tried my best to be a drummer but it wasn’t going to happen. I switched over to guitar at fourteen when Jimi Hendrix died and stuck with it.
GD: Right! I actually have read that you quit the football team the day you heard that Hendrix had passed away, is that true?
JS: Yeah, that’s actually right.
GD: When you picked up the guitar at 14, did you take lessons or were you self-taught?
JS: I started learning on my own. One of my sisters was a folk guitarist and she had a nylon string guitar in the house with a “Magic Chord Sheet” that was in the case that had about 17 of the most important first position chords. So when I expressed an interest, she said I had to learn those chords first. So that was the first thing I did, try to teach myself those first position chords. Then someone in the neighborhood said “hey, you have to learn bar chords.” So I tried to pick things up like that and then I started taking lessons from a local guy, who I think was trying to be a chiropractor, so he wasn’t really tuned into what was going on. I tried to play him “Purple Haze” and he looked at me like I was nuts! He was trying to teach me “Jingle Bells” out of a song book. So that lasted about two weeks.
I wound up learning how to play guitar from watching other guitar players and listening to records and buying books. Then I was lucky enough to go to a public high school who had a very inspired music teacher and this guy's name was Bill Westcott. He taught me classical music theory and music history. So the next two to three years I got a college level education from this brilliant teacher. As a matter a fact, Steve Vai, who was a few years younger than me, was coming up under Bill’s tutelage. We both benefited from Bill’s ability to transfer a university level education to two metal heads, but he got through to us somehow. I learned so much from him.
GD: Who were some of your musical influences growing up?
JS: I was the youngest of five kids, so my older siblings really lived through the music of the late ‘50s and all of the ‘60s and I celebrated and partied with them from the corner of the room. Once I started to play guitar, they were moving out or going to college, so I inherited their record collection and I ended up with a broad foundation of American rock and roll, Motown, funk and blues and British Invasion stuff, a lot of stuff that we call “classic rock.” As I was coming of age in the early ‘70s and started playing guitar, that was the kind of music I was listening to: Black Sabbath, Zeppelin, Hendrix, the Beatles and Stones. Then I moved on to David Bowie and whatnot and just kept moving. Added to that was the music my parents grew up with and what they loved. They were Jazz Age kids and were always playing great jazz music which became part of my foundation.
GD: Do you remember the first album you bought with your own money, whether it is a 45 or album?
JS: It was a 45, "Communication Breakdown" by Led Zeppelin.
GD: I know that you played with the Greg Kihn Band in the mid ‘80s; did you go on tour with them?
JS: I did! I’ve known Greg and the guys in the band for quite a while. I had a band in the San Francisco Bay area called the Squares in late ’79 through the start of ’85. During that time we opened a lot for them as they were a very popular band and gained a lot of national success with the hit single they had (The Breakup Song). They asked me to join a few years before, but I was committed to my own band. Then in late ’85, after I had just recorded what would be my first full length instrumental LP, “Out of This Earth,” they called again and were desperate to have me come in and finish an album called “Love and Rock and Roll” and to stick with them for a year. So I decided to do it. I left the band that I had started in ’79 and I was looking for something to do to help pay off the debt of financing my own solo record. I had a great time and Greg is a great front man, a great singer and an inspired performer. It was good time rock music and we toured domestically for about 11 months.
Then after 11 months, I left the band. About a month after that, I was in New York City playing some songs live for Relativity Records that would eventually be on “Surfing with the Alien.” They had licensed my first album, but they weren’t sure if they wanted to sign me to a real record deal. I didn’t really look the part. They were very concerned because they were making a lot of money with trash metal and most of the rock stars had a lot of hair and had chains and leather. I didn’t look like anybody else or perform like anyone else, but they took the chance and they financed what would become “Surfing with the Alien” and the rest is history.
GD: You have played with several different artists throughout your career; who was your favorite to work with?
JS: I’ve like all of them. I’ve been pretty fortunate that I haven’t had to suffer through artists that I don’t like. That’s been the benefit of starting out as a solo artist and being in control. That’s one of the perks of being a successful solo artist is that people tend to listen to what you have to say the next time around. When I think about it, going on tour with Mick Jagger and Deep Purple or starting up G3 and being able to jam with all of my favorite guitar players, that’s pretty exemplary and I’m so lucky that it happened. I never had to be in a pop band that I hated! All of the success that I got was from material and music that I really liked and believed in. That’s been a real gift from the fans, and I am really grateful!
GD: That’s right; I forgot that you played on Mick Jagger’s solo album.
JS: I actually didn’t play on any of his albums. When I met up with Mick, he was launching his second solo tour and I just happened to be on my very first tour. I just happened to be coming by to do four shows at the Bottom Line in New York City where he was rehearsing for months. They were down to their last month where they hadn’t really found the guitar player. I guess he liked what I was doing so I got the gig. The rest was a fabulous, crazy rock and roll ride and we remain good friends.
GD: It seems that you have played every instrument on your records except the drums. You said you started out as a drummer, why haven’t you gotten behind the kit?
JS: Because I still suck! (laughs) I guess like most of us, we imagine that we are great at a lot of things but once the body gets involved, it shows where our talents truly are. Controlling all four limbs for a long period of time is a difficult thing. Most people can sit down and keep a beat for 45 seconds, but two minutes in, they tend to fall apart. That’s why really great drummers are one-in-a-billion. It is so difficult to keep good time and make it feel good. The physicality involved in playing drums is so difficult; it’s a full body experience. The guitar I recognize, you can detach part of your body, move a couple of muscles and it works. So, I don’t think you want to hear me play the drums.
GD: Ok, we will leave it at that! Many of your album titles have an outer space theme to them; do you believe in aliens in outer space or other life forms?
JS: Wow, that’s a crazy question. I certainly believe in outer space because we are a life form on a planet that is spinning around the sun and we are a part of a solar system that is a part of a galaxy. There are billions of galaxies and we are in space but we don’t even know where outer space is. I believe in science and I’m fascinated by science fiction. I do not believe in what some people consider aliens. I think that’s just collective neurosis that pops up from time to time. Collectively, societies and people of the world really fixate their fears and create fairies and goblins and aliens from outer space. But they really just reflect their fear of being out of control and not being able to determine their futures.
If there is life in outer space it most likely will be unavailable to our senses to understand. Very much like the billions and billions of insects in the world and they will never be able to understand the internet. They won’t be able to understand that I am talking on a cell phone to you half way across the country. Yet, it’s happening. They don’t understand us and we don’t understand them but we both exist. If there are aliens, they aren’t going to have arms and legs and big eyes. They aren’t going to want to probe our orifices. They are probably going to far more fantastical than our little brains can conceive.
GD: Have you talked to Sammy Hagar about this, because he has stated in the past that he has seen aliens or been abducted or whatnot?
JS: Umm, I think he’s crazy! (laughs) And he knows that I think he’s crazy.
GD: Speaking of Sammy, I hear that you've planned a one-off show with Chickenfoot. Is there anymore talk of a possible third album by the band?
JS: I don’t think it will ever happen. That’s my feeling but the other guys may have a better sense of that. Right now, from where I’m setting in this hotel, it doesn’t seem likely.
GD: Wow, I remember reading somewhere, I don’t know if it was you or Sammy saying that you were working on some new material or if it was just planning this show that you are going to do.
JS: Making that leap for a whole album is a whole other story. To do an album properly, you have to get everyone together and spend months working on your best stuff. Everyone is so busy doing other things that it’s not something that looks likely. The best thing that might happen is that an odd song that gets completed.
GD: Man, I would love to hear it. I loved both albums that you guys put out.
JS: Thank you, they were fun albums to do.
GD: Going back to the MTV Unplugged, I love your version of “I Believe,” is there any chance you might revisit that song on this tour?
JS: (laughs) Man, that show was crazy! Most fans know that I don’t consider myself a singer. The backstory behind that is that we had a video for that song and MTV wouldn’t play it. So they blackmailed me into doing that show. They wanted me to do this new show they called “Unplugged” and they wanted me to show up with an acoustic guitar and sing. I told them I don’t sing and play guitar. They said if you don’t do this show, we aren’t going to play your video. So I said, ok I think I can do this. They also told me that I was going to be playing with Stevie Ray Vaughan.
So I convinced my drummer to come out with me because I was scared stiff; because I was going to sing and play on television, something that I had never done in my entire life. So I said you had to play tambourine or something because I wanted a buddy next to me. When I got there, they told me I was not playing with Stevie Ray Vaughan. Then they came out with a cord to plug in, but I had arranged to have this acoustic guitar brought in and they hadn’t figured out how to mic an acoustic guitar. They thought I was bringing an electric acoustic so that just added to the confusion. Then they wanted me to sing with the host. The whole thing was nerve-wracking and I can’t believe they aired that segment to tell you the truth. I felt completely unprofessional about it. I felt that they were really doing their best to screw me and make me feel uncomfortable just to get their TV show together.
GD: Well, I think it came out great and I love that version of the song.
JS: Thank you, thank you. That just goes to show that 99% of show business is just showing up!
GD: So you didn’t end up playing with Stevie Ray on that? I thought they might have cut it out.
JS: No, but we wound up doing a few shows together later on that year at The Pier in New York City and we laughed about the whole thing.
GD: So this tour is “Surfing to Shockwave” what can we expect from this show?
JS: Well, the cool thing this opportunity to tour like this is that it’s “An Evening With” format. There are no opening bands, we take the stage, we take an intermission which gives us a break and allows us to have a really dynamic show. I’ve only done this type of show once or twice. It’s a lot of playing from me, but when I leave the stage I am so artistically satisfied. We get the chance to dip into the catalog to not only celebrate the new music and fan favorites but also songs that didn’t get to see the light of day enough over the last 30 years.
GD: Do you vary your set list or is it basically the same each night or do you throw a curve ball in there every once in a while?
JS: Yeah, we do. We change things up a little here and there. Some of the songs are built or have built into them improvisation. So that is something we toy with each time. This band is capable of reacting in milliseconds to anything. We keep our ears wide open if someone in the band is throwing something interesting or in a different direction. We feed off of the enthusiasm of the audience as well.
GD: Joe, I know that everyone in Cleveland is looking forward to the show. I believe it’s been a few years since you played here, so we hope to get the word out that you are back!
JS: Thank you very much!