The Spice of Life:
Gettin’ Shifty with Joe Satriani
“People need music in their lives,” says legendary rock guitar virtuoso Joe Satriani, calling from his home in San Francisco. “We put on music when we’re happy, when we’re sad, when we need it to accompany us and help us get through life. So all these tools that we learn as musicians have to serve that purpose. You have to move people. That’s the most important thing. It has to elicit an emotional response and an intellectual response.”
This conversation is happening a couple of weeks before the coronavirus clampdown on the nation, giving Satriani’s words a prescient feel in hindsight. As people figure out how they’re going to keep themselves reasonably content in self-isolation, music seems to be the chosen salve for many.
Fortunately for music fans searching for something new and interesting, Satriani will release his seventeenth studio album, Shapeshifting, on April 10. Satriani’s instrumental music has always been noted for its expressive, soul-affirming style, but Shapeshifting displays an unusually wide range of musical genres, ranging from retro ‘80s to reggae. Satriani can’t wait to let his fans explore and enjoy the album.
“It’s so difficult to wait for it to come out!” Satriani says. “The hardest thing is to have patience and let the professionals set the record up and get it released properly. Most artists, they just want to scream it out to the whole world right away. It’s always hard. You invite friends to listen to it just so you can get feedback.”
Satriani says he’s curious to see how fans react to this stylistic diversity. “It’s a good thing for an artist to figuratively slap themselves on the face once in a while and remind themselves that the audience is smart and deep and you can’t guess what they’re thinking, so you might as well give them credit because they will surprise you with how deeply they bring your music in and how they feel about it. You never want to discount their approach as listeners.”
Still, Satriani adds that he’s going to be proud of these songs, regardless of what listeners may say. “The main thing is that if you’re happy with the work, then everything’s good. So I’m in a good spot because I really love this record, and it’s helping to make that anxiety go away.”
The musical diversity on Shapeshifting was deliberate. “The concept was different from the start, in contrast to where you usually walk into a record knowing the tone of the album, the style, how you’re going to ask everybody to play,” Satriani says. “This was just the opposite, where I thought, ‘I’m going to do the contrarian thing and just let every song stylistically reveal itself and I’m going to rearrange myself. That prompted the idea of writing the title track as an introduction to this idea that I would have to go through a metamorphosis every time I went to play on a track, to properly represent the style and properly tell the story behind the music.”
Understanding that this broadminded approach would make the creative process much more difficult, Satriani assembled an impressive backing band: drummer Kenny Aronoff, bassist Chirs Chaney, and keyboardist Eric Caudieux. He also brought in a co-producer, Jim Scott, whose previous production credits include work with Wilco and Tedeschi Trucks Band. And there were notable guest appearances: Lisa Coleman (of The Revolution) on piano, and actor Christopher Guest on mandolin.
“I thought, ‘These are amazing musicians and great people and that’s all you need right there. Technically, they can handle anything. They’ll figure out a way to make it work. That’s what they do.’ And that’s what happened,” Satriani says. “Everybody had fun with the idea that they can change, and it was a good challenge and they got to do things that they normally don’t get to do on other records.”
Instead of taking on a decisive leadership role, Satriani implemented a highly democratic method during the recording process. “I set up this atmosphere where I told everybody, ‘If there’s something funny, just say it. Don’t worry if you’re the second engineer or you’re working on a keyboard part – [if] you hear something funny, come let me know.’
“That really helped because everybody would have some comment because of their background or their experiences. And then we would try each other’s ideas, and sometimes it would work and sometimes it wouldn’t. But you would learn from the experience of it. Every song needed that fun conversation about, ‘What if we did this, what if we did that?’”
Another reason for Satriani’s enthusiasm for variety – on Shapeshifting as well as across his entire career – might also be due to his eclectic and open-minded musical tastes from a very young age. “Early on, I became enthralled with music, and the things that I liked when I was five and six years old pretty much never changed. I never stopped liking things, I just added to the things that I like. I can say honestly that I could listen to Beethoven and Miles Davis and Hendrix and The Ramones and The Rolling Stones equally. They’re all important to me.”
Satriani says his initial musical training, while growing up in Long Island, also contributed to his broadmindedness during his career. “I learned music theory in high school, so very early on I realized there wasn’t any scale or musical style that holds more weight than any other style. It’s all just music.”
Although Satriani has become revered for his technique, he advises aspiring musicians not to put undue emphasis on that aspect of musicianship. “Outrageous, controversial, trendy stuff bursts on the scene, but it tends to evaporate quickly. For an instrumentalist, if you base an album on outrageous technique, it gets learned in 24 hours by every guitar player on the internet, so it immediately loses its power because there’s an eight-year-old somewhere who can do it, probably a little better!” he says with a laugh.
Instead, Satriani says, ‘You’ve got to really try to capture yourself being original because that’s the only thing that sets you apart from everybody else. Everybody can learn all the techniques but people are inherently original.”
This willingness to pass along knowledge and advice is something that comes naturally to Satriani, who started off his career as a guitar instructor. “I passed everything on,” he says of those teaching days. “You surrender everything you know and you see what happens. The coolest thing now is that I run into my other students and we do shows together. Myself and one of my first students, Steve Vai, we still play and tour together and communicate almost on a weekly basis. It’s just great that our dreams of being musicians for life has come true. It’s such an unbelievable turn of events that we can be so lucky.”
That’s not to say that a career in music has always been easy. “There’s a certain amount of brainwashing you have to do to yourself to get over the ridiculousness of living your life as an artist, and you just learn to apply yourself. It’s important to practice. It’s hard work. I’m always working every day. I wake up and I want to play and write some new songs. Once I finish with an album, I start thinking about the next one.”
This work ethic, Satriani says, also helps ensure that he’s always able to seize opportunities when they come along. “You really do have to prepare for luck – your own personal inspirational luck, and then the luck that might come knocking at your door one day. And if you’re not ready, it will just knock on the next door. So that’s something that you’ve got to keep in mind.”
Not taking the initiative is, unfortunately, a mistake Satriani witnesses even within his own personal circle. “It’s funny, I was talking about that with my wife the other day because we were bringing up some friends that we hadn’t heard from in a while. We were talking about how it’s admirable that some of our friends just never give up and they just keep going. And then the other ones just never seem to have the courage to try, to stand up and say, ‘This is what I do.’ There’s always an excuse for them to stay seated. Those are the ones that don’t succeed. Maybe it’s a fear of failure. But I think all great artists are always equally afraid and bold at the same time.”
Satriani himself has certainly made the most of his talent and the opportunities that have arisen. Since his 1984 self-titled debut EP and his first full-length album (1986’s Not of This Earth), he has become the best-selling rock instrumental guitarist of all time, with three of his albums receiving certified gold album sales, and one attaining platinum status (1987’s Surfing with the Alien). He has received 15 Grammy nominations. For decades, he has been widely regarded as one of the most technically impressive rock guitarists in the world.
And Satriani is sure that he’ll continue to find plenty of inspiration. “For me, the source material is life, and life just keeps coming at me like it does for everybody else. Without descending into platitudes, we are all in this together. So whether you need a song when your team scores a goal or you need something to make you think really hard about the deep metaphysical questions, I don’t think the human need for that will ever end because none of us understand what life is about. So if someone comes along and has a new angle on it, we’re going to listen to it. Nothing’s been figured out, as far as I’m concerned – we’re all looking for answers, right?”
Photo by Joseph Cultice.