If you know a thing or two about guitars, chances are one of those things is Joe Satriani. The sexagenarian soloist is renowned among the musically minded for his genre-bending compositions and virtuosic guitar performances, both of which can be found in abundance on his latest record, What Happens Next.
After a 32-year career playing oddly timed, finger-breaking guitar parts alongside literally every big name in progressive music, Satriani has simplified things a little bit on What Happens Next, getting back to roots he swears are in rock and roll.
Having spent most of 2018 sharing the record with fans around the
world, he is gearing up to bring the ‘What Happens Next Tour’ down under
for six dates across the country (and one in New Zealand).
In the lead up to the final leg of the tour, we sat with Satch to talk shop on the band, the album, and the psychology of being called ‘the best’.
MI: You’ve been off the road for a few weeks. Enjoying the break?
JS: “Definitely. I’m home right now because we’ve got some carpenters
working, so I’m just writing some music and watching them. The other
guys needed to go out with their bands anyway, so it worked out well.
“My bass player, Bryan Beller, is going out in September with his band, The Aristocrats. The other two guys, Joe Travers and Mike Keneally, are working with the Zappa family. So they’re back in LA working on some sort of hologram Frank Zappa tour for March. So, everyone needed some time off, and we’ll come back together in Australia.”
Seems like they’re all in pretty high demand. Is it hard locking down a tour with such busy guys?
“You have to compromise and communicate. Everybody’s gig is important, so we just sit around and talk about who’s available and how we can make it work. It takes a village, as they say, to get a tour going.”
Joe Travers is a highly technical performer; a real drummer’s
drummer. It’s surprising you guys didn’t link up sooner. How did it
finally come about?
“It’s funny how it all got started. A number of years back I was at
the Jammy Awards in Madison Square Garden – it was an award show for jam
bands and things like that. I was walking around backstage when Zappa
Plays Zappa came on, and I’m right behind the curtain, behind the
drummer, and I was just blown away by how great this guy was.
“I thought, ‘How does a musician do that? Keep track of the most
complicated music but still make it sound like you can tap your foot to
it.’ He never turned around and I never saw his face.
“So, a couple of years ago, I’m in the studio with Mike Keneally, and we’re trying to figure out who’s going to replace Vinnie Colaiuta.
I just happened to relay that story about the Jammy Awards, and he said
‘You’re talking about my best friend, Joe Travers.’ So we called him
“Joe fits perfectly into this tour. As the new record was being developed I realised that it isn’t so progressive, and that I was really moving back into straight forward rock. So I need somebody who can hang with not only the stuff that Chad Smith laid down on What Happens Next, but also my whole catalogue which is now 30 years of different drummers.”
If your roots are in Rock and Roll, how did you end up an icon of the progressive rock scene?
“I started that way back in the beginning of this century, whatever that year was when we did Strange Beautiful Music (2002). I went to Jeff Campitelli and said, “I’m going to try and put more progressive rock elements into this.”
“Jeff and I are not prog heads, we’re both straight forward rock
heads, so we thought that was cool and decided to go bit by bit and not
overdo it. But by the time Unstoppable Momentum came I really wanted to ramp it up, and by the time we hit Shockwave Supernova we had sort of taken it as far as we could.
“But, you know, when someone does a huge drum fill twenty times in
one song, it gets repetitive to someone who doesn’t listen to that
music. ‘Why is that guy hitting everything all the time? Why doesn’t he
play like Ringo?’ It’s just a different head space.
“If they don’t appreciate the artistry of progressive rock then it goes right over their heads and seems repetitive. But you get repetition in any other style, like pop or dance. Where’s dance music without four on the floor?”
Was writing a ‘straight forward’ record a bit of weight off
the shoulders? I mean, is it easier to find and express a melody without
all the pressure to be a ‘prog guy’ and do it in 9/8?
“If you look at progressive rock, what it does is that it asks
everyone in the band to sort of accessorise their part. And that works
better if you’re doing stuff in 5, 7 or 9, because it gives everyone
more chances to be clever.
“But, at some point, all that accessorising and filling up space makes it harder for me to put a melody down.
“I do find, though, that when you pull away all the progressive stuff, and you’re just trying to play a melody, you’ve got to handle the arrangements very carefully. Everything has to be extremely specific, just like a set of lyrics would be specific. And that’s where I think the straight forward rock instrumental starts to shine, when you start to listen to those really specific choices.”
You’re widely regarded as being among the best guitarists in
history. Was there ever any ego attached to that? Pressure to be ‘the
best’, or to compete with the other big names?
“It’s when I’m talking to journalists, like yourself, or meeting fans
that I have to come to grips with the way people perceive who I am. But
99% of the time I’m just me, who I’ve always been. I feel like a
struggling musician; someone who needs to practice every day, someone
who has that healthy anxiety about ‘Am I going to write something new
“So being one of those guys does me no real good. It’s interesting,
and it has been helpful in my career, for sure. But I write songs with
melodies, and that, not the technique, is why my catalogue has stood the
test of time.
“These days, if you develop some amazing technique, within 24 hours every kid on Youtube knows how to do it better than you. So technique is transitory. It’s just a tool to get your musical ideas into the ears of your fans.
“It’s a good introduction to an artist, like finger-tapping was good for Eddie Van Halen. It was his incredible, wonderful sounding writing that made him famous, though. And Mariah Carey; yeah she can hit those high notes, but it’s the songs that made her a superstar.
“So everyone has that cool thing that they can do, but ultimately it’s the music. It has to be the music.”…