Earlier this month, we had the amazing opportunity to speak with guitar legend Joe Satriani, leading up to his Surfing To Shockwave tour stop at College Street Music Hall in New Haven on March 29. Here’s what our interviewer Nick Gasser had to say about it:
Doing an interview with a mega rockstar like Joe Satriani was a daunting task – as a huge fan myself, I don’t want to gush like a fool, but I also want to show an audience that might have never heard of Joe what he’s all about. With a 30-year-strong career spanning 15 studio albums – four gold and two platinum – he’s also the co-founder of rock sensation Chickenfoot and the wildly popular G3 tours, and has worked closely with hundreds of guitar players (including world-famous musicians Steve Vai and Kirk Hammett). There’s a lot to cover in only 15 minutes, so we decided to jump on in at the present.
Check out the interview below!
Nick Gasser: We are going to be seeing you March 29th at College Street Music Hall in New Haven – when’s the last time you were in Connecticut?
Joe Satriani: I’m gonna guess that it was the Unstoppable Tour, so two and a half years ago, something like that? Year and a half maybe?
NG: So for the Surfing To Shockwave Tour, it’s a little different than the tours you’ve done in the past as it’s covering your whole career – is the process for developing a set list for this tour much different than it has been in the past, and how do you look at all of the stuff you’ve done and say yes, this should be in the tour, and maybe this one can wait for another day?
JS: Well, the Surfing To Shockwave Tour is in an “Evening With” format, which means there are no opening bands – we take the stage, and we own the stage from the beginning of the night to the end of the night – this gives us a great opportunity to dip into the entire catalog over the last thirty years and pull out not only the fan favorites and obviously the new tracks from Shockwave Supernova, but also songs that haven’t really had enough time being played live for one reason or another. They didn’t fit with previous shows or maybe we just think they’re so crazy that we gotta play them once again – which is the case for the song Not Of This Earth, which is on the first full length album that i put out – I’m not sure why it didn’t wind up in the title of the tour, but it’s just one of those funny things. I think Surfing To Shockwave just sounds better. But the format is really great, we take an intermission; this also gives us an opportunity to create a show that has so many more dynamics than you can cram into 90 minutes or less, like if you’re at a G3 show and you’ve only got 50 minutes to play. Having the evening in this format allows us to not only play a larger variety of styles from all of the records but also to feature individual guys from the band in different ways. It’s great, it’s really fun, its cathartic, its artistically satisfying.
NG: When you’re putting together a set list you have to make sure that you’re covering the hits – everyone’s going to want to hear Flying In A Blue Dream or Summer Song, so i have to ask you – if you had the opportunity to put together your own set list – you don’t have to worry about covering things that necessarily people want to hear, but your ideal set list – do you have a couple song off of the top of your head that you’d want to have that maybe you don’t get to play as often?
JS: I think my ideal set list is kind of like what we’re doing right now. I like being able to play music from the entire catalog because in my view, I never really stop working on them. I don’t rate them the way I would look at let’s say, a set list for an artist that I like to follow, because I’m the composer. I’m privy to the one thousand and one versions of this song that never made it to release, so I’m often thinking about that every time I take the stage. I have a chance to work on it again, to make it a little bit better, to bring some new depth to the composition. And then of course every time we go out on tour, the other guys bring something new – sometimes i’ve got a brand new band, or they’ve had some different experiences that they bring back to the stage. We sort of plug that in to an old favorite and we can kind of reinvent it so as long as we’re playing my music, it’s an unbelievable pleasure. So that’s the way I look at it.
NG: So we’re still going to be seeing Marco, Bryan, and Mike on the tour at College Street, right, same old band?
JS: Yes, absolutely, yeah, Marco Minnemann on drums, Bryan Beller on bass guitar, and Mike Keneally playing guitar and keyboard, an absolutely amazing band. They always push me every night to play harder, better, deeper, and it’s just one of these bands that we go on smiling and laughing and it just keeps going – we just have a good time, all the time we’re on stage, so it’s kind of like the best recommendation.
NG: Absolutely. I think that one of the reasons that your music has been able to last as long as it has is that it maintains a certain melodic or even a vocal quality to it, and i think that a lot of instrumentalists seek to do that with their art – they want to sort of separate the instrument from itself, and my question here is – do you find that you have an approach to songwriting that is very methodical, or scientific as it relates to theory, or do you think that you just let your consciousness take you where it goes, and see what happens? Do you have a single approach, or is it just kind of all over the board for when you‘re doing your songwriting?
JS: I like to approach songwriting purely from an inspirational point – I wait until I’m inspired by something that’s happening to me, something that i’m remembering, a person, an interaction, good times, bad times, things I read about, things I imagine. But it has to translate, to try to understand, to try and grapple with some feeling that i’m having about all of those subjects – and then i just turn that into music. And I let that very specific particular story indicate to me which notes to leave out and which notes are important. So that’s the training, the music training, just pops in if I’m at a loss for a moment or sometimes it comes in just to illuminate something that’s interesting that I’ve come up with. It’s always that case, I know a lot of people don’t quite understand the difference between knowing music theory and not knowing it and very often they think if you know it then that’s all that you do – you put on your thinking cap and you calculate musical structures, but it couldn’t be farther from the truth. It’s just something that’s there, it’s like vocabulary – if you have a limited vocabulary then you will express yourself in a limited way, and the more vocabulary you have, the more times that the right word comes to your mind when you need to express something very specific. It doesn’t change how you express yourself, or what you want to express, it just facilitates a better way. I think people pick up on that, because when they hear my music, each song is about a specific subject – it’s not a self promotional vehicle for my technique, never has been. It’s always about stories that the notes represent.
NG: For people that want to get to know more about your process, you do have an opportunity coming up – the G4 Experience is going to happen again in New York. Can you tell us a little bit about how the G4 Experience works and what you hope to get out of this year?
JS: Well, the G4 Experience is a 4 to 5 day clinic, a totally immersive guitar experience. I get to gather with three other superstars – Eric Johnson, Alex Skolnick, and Mike Keneally. We have an additional guest, Steve Vai, who comes for one day and sort of takes over and shares his brilliance with everybody. We basically go to a venue, in this case it’s the Glen Coast Mansion on Long Island in New York, and we can handle about 200 students. For those four days, it’s intensive clinics given by all of the performers, and jam sessions, and then performances at night; it’s just one of the craziest things a guitar player could do because they get surrounded with players like themselves on all levels – beginners to advanced players, but in a very informal setting so they get to hang out with us. We give clinics starting at about 10am all the way to – I don’t think there’s a curfew at night, really – and we kind of break the walls down between performer and fan and performer and student and we share everything that we know about the intricacies of guitar playing, music in general, music theory. This is the third year that we’ve done it. We did two out in Cambria in California, beautiful location, and this time we decided we’d go to the east coast. Just coincidentally we’re very close to where Steve Vai and myself grew up, as well as Mike Keneally – he was born on Long Island – so it’s a sort of cool homecoming as well. But they’re really fun events, I really like doing them. It’s a great opportunity to have fun, to perform, but also to teach.
NG: I was fortunate enough to be able to attend last year and I can say that it is, musically, a pretty life changing experience to be able to get to ask those questions and get that information and share it with the other people that you know. Do you think that being in New York, so close to your hometown and sort of coming back to where it all began, is going to impact the way that G4 is run this year, or do you think that it is going to be along the same lines as the last two years?
JS: I think the location will have two profound effects. Obviously August in New York has got a whole different set of weather conditions than the central California coast, so we will be indoors. This actually adds a lot of sonic control which i’m looking forward to – if you remember, out in Cambria a lot of the clinics were held outside. That’s always a bit interesting to deal with as a guitar player, not only with the way the guitar operates but also just with how things sound, doing things in tents, you know, and in the great California outdoors. So we’ll be in a better environment sonically I think which will be fun, but on the other side of it I think there is going to be an emotional component at least for me because every time I return home it’s a special feeling. I like being there, and I’ll be bringing a lot of those emotions into my performances.
NG: Alright, definitely looking forward to the experience. On the subject of all things relating to the letter G, we recently found out that G3 2016 has been put together – can you tell us little bit about this year and how the tour is going to work?
JS: We do have some G3 shows coming up, and this season’s tour of Europe. Last year we did about nine weeks in Europe, and Europe is so big now for touring that you could spend a year and a half just trying to get everywhere. So we mainly wanted to go back to do a lot of festivals, but the opportunity came up to do some G3 shows, and the G3 guitar festival is something that my manager and I have managed since 1996. It’s a difficult process to pull people out of their bands and their own touring schedules to get them together. We were surprised and very lucky that we were going to be able to get The Aristocrats and Steve Vai basically in the same general location for about a week or two. I believe we have some shows in Italy and Germany coming up right in the middle of the festival tour, so I’m really looking forward to getting back on stage with Steve and finally getting Guthrie on stage in a G3 format, something i’ve wanted to do ever since he put out Erotic Cakes. He’s a fantastic guitar player, a great addition to the G3 family.
NG: I think it promises to be a pretty fantastic show. I have one last question for you. I remember when you were at G4, someone had brought up a question about gear, and you made the point that before you worry about things like guitars and amplifiers, what’s really important is that you first be great. Both musically and in general as people, what’s your recommendation on helping people become great, and to sort of reach their internal greatness. How did you do it for yourself, and do you have any advice on helping people find that within themselves? Whether it’s for music or for anything in life?
JS: When you say something like do your best, try to be great, that’s kind of a crazy thing to say, but because that’s all I’m trying to do, I’m with you on that one. Every day I just try to do my best and use all of my talents to their fullest. That’s more of a quest than it is a detailed set of instructions. I don’t think anyone can be so presumptuous to say that they’ve figured out how to be great and lay it out step by step – everyone has to figure that out for themselves. It’s more of an attitude I think than a set of exercises or instructions or plans. But if you get into the spirit of it, I think then that’s the most important thing.
NG: Words to live by, I’m sure. I know you have a nice concert and a busy schedule ahead of you, but Joe it was a pleasure to talk to you. Looking forward to seeing you March 29th at College Street Music Hall in New Haven! Have a wonderful rest of the tour, and we’ll see you at G4.
JS: Thanks so much, good to talk to you!
A few closing words from Nick:
I can write about “Satch” and his music until I wear my fingers to stumps, but the best way to see why he’s one of the most famous and skilled guitar players to ever live is to listen to his music. You can find all his albums, including his newest release Shockwave Supernova, on most music platforms. If you would like to know more about Joe and his music, to sign up for the G4 Experience, or to purchase a ticket to his show in New Haven, check out his website at joesatriani.com.