Joe Satriani: Seismic ‘Shapeshifting’
Joe Satriani loosens the reins for his 17th studio set, embracing a new team and new locale 50 years after he walked off the gridiron for good.
The most popular space inside PLYRZ Studios right now is the countertop of a high rectangular table, where an appetizing panoply of salads, breads, deli meats, condiments and cheeses sits neatly arranged. The backlit marquee hanging above the control-room door displays, in black block letters, the day’s artist in residence: Joe Satriani. At the moment, though—within this sizable square of warehouse, among a museum-worthy exhibition of vintage amps, drum kits, keyboards, classic LPs and other rock-and-roll accoutrements—the kitchen corner is where the magic is happening.
“If you are using the panini press, can I give you a tip?” Satriani politely asks a guest prepping a sandwich. “Spread a little mayonnaise on the outside of the bread. That’s something I learned.”
Satriani is taking a brief break from mixing his forthcoming album, Shapeshifting. He assembles a plate of mixed greens and joins his production team in the dining room upstairs. He’s the last to sit down and the first to finish eating.
PLYRZ resides in an anonymous office complex in Santa Clarita, Calif., a mere 35 miles northwest of Los Angeles. It’s a cool, clear Tuesday afternoon in December. The tan mountainside, still recovering from the autumn wildfires, is visible through the widescreen second-floor windows.
Save for being neighbors with the Six Flags Magic Mountain theme park, the setting belies much of the trademark SoCal vibe of fun in the sun. That’s just fine for Satch; the 15-time Grammynominated guitarist is here to work.
As a teen, Satriani was a drummer and a football player—the youngest of five growing up in Westbury, N.Y. He caught the rock-and-roll bug after listening to the records his sisters’ boyfriends brought over and become particularly fanatical about Jimi Hendrix. Inevitably, he decided he had a better chance of making it with six strings than with pigskins or drumsticks. So, in September of 1970, a 14-year-old Satriani walked off the gridiron for good.
“I was suited up for practice, standing outside the gym, when I got the news that Hendrix had died. I turned around, walked back in and told the coach I’m quitting,” recalls Satriani. “I said, ‘I’m going to become a guitarist.’”
Five decades later, having moved 10 million albums, Satriani is the highest-selling instrumental rock guitarist of all time. Shapeshifting will be his 17th studio album since his solo debut in 1986. The record, due for an April release on Sony Legacy, follows an unusual two-year period, during which the notoriously progressive musician spent as much time looking forward as he did looking back.
After lunch, Satriani returns to the control room. He asks producer Jim Scott to cue up a mix in progress on the track “Nineteen Eighty.” He sits on the edge of a couch while Scott cranks up the volume at the console. A rapid cascade of precise, virtuosic single-note guitar lines cycle out at warp-speed, shredding the silence; like a Formula One car doing laps in the living room. Satriani lowers his head, leaning forward into the music, jotting notes on a scrap of paper. “This one is almost there,” says Scott.
Six weeks later, in mid-January, Satriani steps into the restaurant Knoll at the Le Parc hotel in West Hollywood. In a few hours, he’ll travel to Anaheim to accept induction into the Metal Hall of Fame as one of 11 in the Hall’s 2020 class, including his friend and former student, Steve Vai. Satriani generally avoids classifying his music, but he understands the metal affiliation.
“It’s really something, when you think about it,” says Satriani. “The soundtrack to Steve and I’s coming of age on Long Island was Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin and Deep Purple. We’re kids of that era. We like aggressive guitars. We love distortion. There’s a message in that gurgling, bubbling, aggressive sound.”
In 1979, Satriani moved to Berkeley, Calif., and started teaching guitar and building a roster of students that eventually included Metallica’s Kirk Hammett and Primus’ Larry LaLonde. He also started making demos with a power trio, alternating between the names Squares and The Squares, and honing in on a hybrid of metal, rock, punk and new wave. “Part Van Halen and part Everly Brothers,” says Satriani. “We thought we were really clever—too clever, in retrospect.”
Last year, Satriani used some of his time off the road to compile the Squares’ rejected demos into a proper release and issued the eponymous Squares in July of 2019. In the group’s contemporaneous press photos, Satriani looks more leather-clad, turn-of-the-‘80s rocker than futuristic guitar hero. His playing, too, only glances at the flexing, fluid monster it would become in the ensuing decade— as dictated by band rules, grandstanding guitar solos were not part of the Squares’ ethos.
The Squares project evoked plenty of nostalgia for Satriani. He responded by writing “Nineteen Eighty” as a wink to the stringency of his former band. “So, of course, I put a guitar solo right at the start,” he says with a smile. “I know there is a bit of funny emotion mixed up in it that I’ll never be able to untangle entirely.”
There are real stories, even underlying tacit narratives, within all of Satriani’s instrumental works. The songs comprising Shapeshifting are no exception. The titular track derives, in part, from Greek mythology, inspired by Zeus’ dalliance with Metis. “Here the Blue River” draws on the Ralph Waldo Emerson poem “The River.” Others, like “Big Distortion,” unfold a half-century of musical references during a single four-minute sprint; “All My Friends Are Here” soundtracks the emotional spectrum of an evening spent reuniting. And, because an artist always wants to tell a new story, Satriani, it seems, is always shifting his shape. “I instantly get tired of what I’ve just done. I have to change. I don’t know [why]. If you find that out, please tell me,” he says. “I think of all the times I’ve done it, and it’s been to the detriment of my career. The first time I noticed it was after the success of Surfing.”
Surfing With The Alien was Satriani’s first certified smash – a sophomore studio LP that went platinum, establishing the guitarist as one of the finest players on, or off, the planet. He followed that 1987 hit with 1989’s Flying in a Blue Dream, an album that surprisingly featured vocals. “Everybody said, ‘Why are you doing that? Why don’t you just do Surfing part two?’ That would have been the smart thing to do,” says Satriani.
He revisited Surfing as a Record Store Day Black Friday exclusive in 2019, putting out a two-LP colored vinyl, limited edition. Coupled with the Squares record and 2018’s What Happens Next, it was a reflective, pivotal moment for Satch.
“It was strange to go from What Happens Next to the Squares to the Surfing thing,” Satriani says. “By the time I finished [Shapeshifting], I actually felt like it was a new beginning, in a funny way. It started with a familiar slap in the face, a kick down the stairs: ‘You have to do something different. You can’t live here anymore.’ That attitude made me reach out to Jim.”
Jim Scott, the Grammy-winning producer whose credits include Tom Petty and Tedeschi Trucks Band, met Satriani through drummer Kenny Aronoff, best known for his many years with John Mellencamp. During a session at PLYRZ for the artist Lauren Monroe, Aronoff mentioned to Scott that Satriani would love to record at the studio. Satriani and Aronoff were longtime compatriots, who had most recently paired up for 2019’s Experience Hendrix tour.
Satriani and his wife Rubina visited PLYRZ, met Scott and booked their first sessions immediately following the Hendrix dates. Typically, Satriani takes a break after several months on the road and tries not to even touch his guitar. “That didn’t happen this time,” he says. “I thought, what if we record the basics, go out for three or four weeks with the Hendrix tour and, a week later, I’m in the studio, with all my chops and my calluses up? And I think it did work. I was able to offer a more prepared version of myself.”
Aronoff credits the structure of the Hendrix tour with establishing a working foundation for the sessions. “We got musically and personally close. We had become kind of a band,” the drummer says. “Because we already understood each other, that saved us a lot of time in the studio.”
Satriani came to the sessions armed with fully arranged demos, including complete bass, drums and keyboard sections. Aronoff, who earned a degree in classical music, has a distinct reputation for meticulously writing charts for every note of every song he records.
They also brought in a ton of gear, hauling trunks of guitars and over three-dozen amplifiers directly from the stage to the studio. Then, they combined that arsenal with PLYRZ’s already impressive house equipment offerings. Scott says it was the biggest load-in he’s ever seen.
And Satriani also enlisted old friends, such as John Cuniberti, who first met the Squares in the early 1980s when he was working as a live soundman and aspiring recording engineer in San Francisco. Since he engineered and co-produced Surfing, Cuniberti has collaborated on a half-dozen Satriani studio records. It was also while recording a live Satch performance that Cuniberti had the kernel of an idea that led to a ground-breaking invention.
Dissatisfied with the tone of the bass amp he had on tape, Cuniberti hypothesized taking the recorded direct track and routing it through a different amp. After several trial-and-error incarnations, he perfected a revolutionary tech creation—his little red box—the Reamp. Satriani was an eager customer.
Cuniberti’s Reamp allowed Satriani to record home demos without an amp, then play back, and record, those tracks through a choice amplifier in the studio. As he had on previous sessions, Satriani utilized the Reamp on Shapeshifting, securing the best tonal fit for the songs and his fellow musicians. Satriani jammed live with Aronoff and bassist Chris Chaney to pre-recorded tracks, often keeping both the reamped and in-the-moment cuts in the final mix.
Scott, though, is quick to dispel any notion of too much digital tailoring. “It’s a live performance every inch of the way,” the producer says. “There was a lot of freedom to be themselves. These guys are at another level.”
Satriani and Aronoff stretched their physical limits. Aronoff recalls nailing the demanding, machine-gun snare fill that opens “Shapeshifting.” Satriani playfully warned the drummer that he’d be “stuck” having to duplicate it every night on tour.
On “All for Love,” Satch cops to his own challenges. He calls the spacey ballad the hardest song he’s ever recorded. At one point, he crouched into and held a stationary position to keep his axe in check while Scott pushed him take after take. “Every micro-second, I had to be thinking, ‘Am I playing in tune?’ [Keyboardist Eric Caudieux] came in and said, ‘That’s the best thing I’ve ever heard you play,’” Satriani adds. “I don’t know how we’ll do it live, actually. I’ll admit that to you right now.”
“He’s cool and he’s patient,” says Scott. “And, he’s a very lyrical player. He certainly can play fast. He certainly can play loud. But, he’s a really musical man who plays beautiful melodies.”
In conversation, Satriani speaks thoughtfully, quietly. He is upbeat, but also often self-deprecating and his own harshest critic. Many years ago, he sat in the California sand, relaxing and recharging after a tour. He heard some offending music approaching him, blasting from a beachcomber’s boombox. He rolled his eyes, but also felt some relief: At least he didn’t sound like that.
Satriani’s second thought? He did sound like that. The guitar screaming out of the passing speakers was his own.
Though Satriani originally planned to return to the road this spring for three months in Europe, taking Aronoff with him, he ultimately postponed those dates to 2021 due to concerns brought on by the coronavirus disease. He quotes Leonardo da Vinci, believing art is never finished, just abandoned, and confesses that he could only recently listen to Shapeshifting without cringing.
“It was a good thing I took a chance on a new location and a new team,” Satriani says. “I play guitar for a living, but Jim makes albums for a living. It was good that I let go. Everything from recording to serving lunch—Jim did a lot of things right. Every day, I was at ease, yet wonderfully bombarded with the love of music and record-making.”
This article originally appeared in the March 2020 issue of Relix. For more features, interviews, album reviews and more subscribe below.