Guitar hero or what?
When talking to Joe Satriani, you’d be forgiven for thinking he’s just a super nice dude who lives a quiet life with books and chickens. Maybe he does collect fresh eggs each morning and reads a lot (one of these turned out to be true!), regardless, the softly-spoken musician has a swag of Grammy noms and millions in album sales (so far). This grants him the luminous title of biggest-selling, instrumental rock guitarist of all time. Not bad for a guy who recorded his first album with $5k on a hiked-up, 19.5% credit card. It was a widely-rejected album until ex-guitar-pupil-turned-friend, Steve Vai, introduced him to a “crazy guy working for a label out in Long Island”. According to Vai, (Zappa, David Lee Roth, White Snake) this guy was sure to like Satriani’s album which was “much less weird” than his own.
Joe Satriani & Steve Vai | Satch Boogie (Live 1988)
“The whole thing was complete magic.”
At the gentle age of 9, the music bug bit little Satriani something fierce. Tagging along with his parents to drop his older sisters off at a dance, he watched, mesmerized, at the swarming teens in full flight; that is until the band kicked in with “Satisfaction” by The Rolling Stones.
“You know there are several times in your life where something happens and you feel like your DNA is either changing or it’s waking up, you know, like double helixes swirling around,” says the New York native. “That was the first time this thing happened where I just fell in love with whatever was happening.”
It’s fascinating that wide-eyed boy would become lead guitarist on Mick Jagger’s ‘88 solo tour a quarter century later. He’s also collaborated with monster icons like Deep Purple, Alice Cooper, Crowded House, and Sammy Hagar. And how about past pupils; some have gone on to play in bands like Metallica, Counting Crows, Third Eye Blind, and Primus. Epic times and the mind boggles at what fantastical stories lay forever dormant, and yet the voice on the line remains philosophical and tranquil.
Joe Satriani on tour with Mick Jagger | Foxy Lady (Australia 1988)
“For all the horror stories of modern social media…the old days were just as bad.”
Bad reviews come and go and as expected, Satriani’s had his share. He recalls a particularly withering write-up from a journalist at The Mercury News, not long after playing a sold-out show in San Francisco.
“Not only did he call us out for the way that we sounded and played, he also criticized the audience for the way they looked, who they were, their sex, their age and the clothes they wore,“ says Satriani. At this point, I’m pretty sure he’s shaking his head at the puzzling level of venom. “It was so bad and so scathing, we printed it up on t-shirts that we then distributed to our fans and proudly wore on tour.”
And did he ever have the good fortune to reconnect with the perpetrator?
“It’s so terrible that it’s funny and of course we would go on to greater things and that guy is stuck in the same place,” he recalls. “And I know this because he had to interview me several times after that, and obeying one of the 10 rules of show business, you never forget what they did to you but you never let them know you remember.”
“I’m not really cut out for show business…”
As a figure who is regularly in the spotlight, hanging out and shaking hands with fans brings a whole level of difficulty. Satriani isn’t one to bask, preferring the comfort of the studio or stage, rocking with his band. “I’m not like some of my friends who are really great at it you know, like Sammy Hagar and Mick Jagger,” he says pragmatically of them. “Their personalities are so geared towards meeting large groups of people, plugging into a room whether it’s 7 or 70,000.
Who is Joe? Really.
Lovingly known as “Satch”, fans around the globe would be resoundingly familiar with the guitarist’s penchant for adopting alien alter egos. This may have spawned from his early dousing of science fiction writers like Philip K. Dick and Harlan Ellison. While his friends were tween deep in Silver Surfer or Archie Comics, he struggled through his father’s “recommendations” like the scientific foray into “The Double Helix”.
“My mother was a school teacher and my dad was a genius engineer so they were extremely disappointed I became an electric guitarist,” he chuckles. “Nonetheless, they made me read books.”
It was halfway through the 2015 tour when Satriani invited his filmmaker son to capture background footage for a live concert DVD.
“It was my son and he’d been on tour with us since he was 4-years-old. He knew everybody in the band and the crew, and when your son is asking you questions, you’re not going to lie,” Satriani confesses.
“If we had hired a film crew of strangers, I probably would’ve just acted my way through it.”
What started out as B-roll morphed into a full-blown documentary. “Beyond the Supernova” exposes the artist struggling to shed accumulated personas and neuroses. It became a strange situation where life imitates art and Satriani remembers playing the song, ‘Supernova’ each night, “where the alter ego finally agrees to dissolve and the true Joe says, well I’ll absorb those good parts, so it’s not like you’re vanishing, you’re just becoming one.”
“You walk out naked and you’re bombarded with all the stuff and the way that you usually protect yourself is to build up layer after layer,” muses Satriani. “After a couple of decades, it’s like what is all this stuff? I gotta peel it off and get back to the true self. The movie really shines a light on that process and at the same time shows really good insight into my life as a professional instrumentalist.”
Whether it’s Satch/Shockwave Supernova/Joe Satriani, we do wish this quiet, talented, guitar virtuoso the best of luck, for at the end of the day it’s all about the music!
Satriani with ex-pupil, Steve Vai
Q: Who is “Super Funky Badass”? (Track 10 on Satriani’s latest album, “What Happens Next”)
A: It’s what I’d like to be but it’s one of those things that you say and then you regret it because the reporter says, “He thinks he’s a super funky badass.”
Q: Have you tried Vegemite?
A: I keep trying it and not really liking it. It’s just like yeast.
Q: What advice would you give to your younger self?
A: Don’t worry so much. When you’re young you fret over things that are completely imagined and there’s no way to control it anyway. There’s not enough work to divert your attention and there’s so much downtime there’s too much time to think. Conspiracy theories happen in your head.
Q: How many guitars do you have?
A: At one point I had about 300. I’m trying to slow down the acquisition thing as it’s like a disease. We’ve been successful at giving them away at auctions and charity events. I have about 200 now and would like to get it down to about 30.
Out now. Joe Satriani’s latest album, “What Happens Next”.