By Johnny Papan
VANCOUVER – “It hits the heart of what, I have to admit, is the strange artistic temperament to destroy what you build and start over again. I knew that growing up watching my favourite artists I would always scratch my head thinking ‘why did they suddenly change from the last album?’ It’s like when Led Zeppelin III came out or Exile On Main Street came out, Zeppelin and the Stones made radical changes on how they put together albums and how they would set upon exploring new territory.“
Joe Satriani is one of the world’s most renowned guitarists. Inspired to play guitar at age 14 after the passing of one of his all-time favourite artists, Jimi Hendrix, Satriani studied and soloed his way to becoming a guitar teacher, moulding the skills of other well-known virtuosos such as Metallica’s Kirk Hammett, Primus’ Larry Lalonde, and Steve Vai. His second album, the fully instrumental Surfing With the Alien jolted Satriani into mainstream notoriety. After several years of experimentation and redesign with every album, Satriani completely deconstructs the complexities of his past works by taking a refreshingly simpler approach with his newest record: What Happens Next.
“This album is about me. That was the cornerstone of the project itself, not to write about somebody else. Not to stray far from my experiences,” Satriani explains. “A song like ‘Thunder High on the Mountain’ is really about me seeking out my new direction. I use the imagery of climbing a high mountain where people say they find themselves. So I go up there and find this new direction, my true self. As people watch me go up they know that something is changing.” Satriani continues: “This particular change really had to do with the record before.”
His previous release, Shockwave Supernova, could be considered his most complex album both musically as well as conceptually. The story is of Joe Satriani facing off in a guitar-duel against his own alter-ego, an alien-being named Shockwave Supernova. This alien persona served as a metaphor for Satriani’s inner-battle with his own creativity.
“I thought this was a good device for me to exercise the demons necessary to write the material. Once I got through it, I realized every night I was playing a song that was written about the real Joe killing a ‘persona of Joe’ off and emerging as a new, natural person. I’ve sort of written a fiction that became reality into my life.”
The Shockwave Supernova character was also partly influenced by Satriani’s stage discomfort early in his career. He recalls his first gig in high school where he spent the entire show playing with his back to the audience. This pseudo-anxiety would follow Satriani through his early years as a professional musician. This was until he toured Japan as part of a solo band for the legendary Rolling Stones frontman: Mick Jagger.
“The experience that I had playing with Mick was so fantastic,” Satriani recalls. “He was like a kid because he loved to have fun and he loved to improvise on stage. He was out of control, but he worked out, he practiced singing, he surrounded himself with interesting people. He did everything he could to be the most vibrant rock and roll singer you could ever see. I was so impressed with that, I thought this was the way a performer should be. It was the beginning of me starting to change my basic nature.”
During the Shockwave Supernova tour, Joe’s son Zachariah Satriani was filming backstage footage for a concert DVD. The project naturally turned itself into a documentary titled Beyond the Supernova, which explored Satriani’s artistic struggles during this time. After touring Shockwave Supernova and celebrating the 30th anniversary of Surfing With the Alien, Satriani found himself in another creative epidemic. An epidemic that would also serve as the inspiration for his new record.
“I would be sitting on the tour bus listening to some old songs or new demos, and I’d be saying to myself: ‘Joe, what happens next?’ I kind of wrote that title down as a reminder to keep thinking about what I should do next, to keep exploring and not to do the same thing. It started out as like a mantra and then it became kind of like a private joke,” Satriani chuckles. “From that came this realization that I did wanna go back and simplify things. To go back to what I enjoyed most about music and playing guitar. The whole process was such an upheaval of what I’ve done over the last 10 years or so that it deserved to have a title like that.”
What Happens Next sees Satriani join forces with all-star musicians Glenn Hughes of Deep Purple fame on bass, and Chad Smith, drummer of the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Satriani and Smith also make music together in the rock and roll supergroup Chickenfoot, alongside former Van Halen vocalist Sammy Hagar and bassist Michael Anthony.
After spending his career collaborating with some of music’s finest, solidifying himself as one of the world’s greatest guitarists, and overcoming his own personal creative demons, Satriani, the former teacher, still has tidbits of knowledge to bestow upon the musicians of tomorrow.
“In the end it’s about if you’re successful at telling the story, transmitting the feeling from yourself to the instrument, and then transmitting that to the audience.” Satriani concludes: “Form an opinion about different music so you can slowly develop your own style, but don’t hide in your room. The point of this, ultimately, is to play music for people. Get any gig you can. You’ll never know when you can learn something that you won’t learn from any other experience. It really does help you and give you confidence. As a musician, you never forget that stuff.”
Joe Satriani plays the Commodore Ballroom on June 1.Commodore Ballroom, joe satriani