Joe Satriani interview: space talk with Brian May and life with robotic cats

Joe Satriani

When Joe Satriani was announced as winner of the Maestro award at the 2015 Classic Rock Roll Of Honour, there wasn’t a sniff of dissent in the room. After all, it’s hard to imagine a musician who better fits the bloody-minded, bloodier-fingered, clinically obsessed profile of the guitar virtuoso – or one who deploys that technique to create such atmospheric music.

Since 1987’s breakthrough Surfing With The Alien, Satch has been the instrumental shredder it’s okay to like, a songwriter who uses his axe like a larynx to create mood-driven gold (not masturbatory dross). That tunes-before-chops philosophy continues with latest album What Happens Next, on which the guitarist is joined by the all-star band of Glenn Hughes (bass) and Chad Smith (drums).

Are you pleased with What Happens Next?

Oh yeah. Every step of making it was so much fun. Just the thought of having Glenn and Chad on the record, my head sorta exploded. Then, when they said ‘yes’… there was so much excitement in that room at Sunset Sound, just big enough for three guys. Chad’s passion is catching and it makes you play better. And Glenn is a superstar.

What was the inspiration behind Catbot?

I had this image in my head. We have a lot of robots in our lives now. They’re controlling what’s happening on the Internet, vacuuming our houses when we’re away, making cars. In Japan, they’re getting semi-human and animal-like robots. So I was thinking, ‘What if you had a cat robot?’ I was imagining it walking down the street at night, and of course, once it starts to communicate, it comes out sounding very robotic, not like a sweet little ‘miaow’. It took me a while to work out how to get the guitar to sound like a tortured robot cat.

Do you ever wake up and think: “I’m arguably the best guitarist in the world”?

Never. I’m always worried that I won’t be able to play. So for the first couple of moments I’ll flex my fingers and go: “Okay, how do they feel today?” I have a harder time playing guitar than some of my best friends. If I’m hanging around with Steve Vai or John Petrucci, they don’t have the tightness issues that I seem to always be plagued with. That might just be my physiology, that I’m so tightly wound.

Do you have amazing manual dexterity – typing, for example?

I’m getting better at typing – I use all my fingers. But thank God for spell-check.

Are you concerned about how ageing will affect your technique?

I’m much better now at harnessing my physical attributes. But on the other side, there’s gonna be stuff that breaks down. I kinda noticed that in my late-twenties, just as my career started. I remember thinking it really would have helped if I was famous at nineteen, when my body was firing on all cylinders. Instead success came when I was turning thirty. And I thought: “Great, now I’m becoming old. My hair is falling out. This is bad timing.” But those things are silly. If people connect with your music, they get used to how strange you look or the way you need to operate to make music.

Is there a lot of intergalactic space-talk when you get together with Brian May?

Y’know, when I talk about space I talk about science-fiction. When Brian talks about space he talks about space in reality, because he’s a scientist. I can’t keep up with him. So we talk more about music.

What are the benefits of permanently wearing sunglasses?

Well, you don’t get your eyes burnt out by the spotlights. Or if you’ve gotta do that TV appearance after a long tour you can hide your fatigue. The sunglasses thing happened as a joke. Isurprised my band one tour by showing up with my head shaved. And they were so horrified that they said I had to wear a hat and glasses or they wouldn’t stop laughing on stage. Then I realised that having that curtain to hide behind allowed me to be more creative and feel less self-conscious. My buddy Sammy Hagar feels the same way. He says he can’t go on stage without sunglasses because he’s so embarrassed to be a singer. He’s the last person you’d expect to think that way.

You’ve said you’re not cut out for showbiz. What’s your least favourite part of the job?

Being around people. It’s a major drawback, right? Like, if my manager called me and said: “You’ll be meeting fifty people every day before the show,” immediately I’d start getting butterflies in my stomach. It’s silly. I mean, I’m a grown-up and I’ve been doing this my whole life, and still my initial reaction is: “Don’t do it.”

Your long-standing G3 tour brings together three different guitar heroes – but Eddie Van Halen and Jeff Beck turned down your invite. Were you offended?

Hah – I was expecting it. But that’s okay, because for some artists, it’s good for them to only be seen in their own environment. But I’ll still keep asking Eddie until he says: “Please don’t ask me again.” I’m holding out hope, because I believe his audience would love to see him step out, relax and show how good he is. Jeff, of course, is a super-icon. Wouldn’t it be great to have Jimmy Page and Billy Gibbons do a G3? I wouldn’t have to play. I’d just sit in the audience and watch.

What’s your favourite memory of that Roll Of Honour in 2015?

It was just a nice thing to take a few hours out from the insanity of the world and pat each other on the back. I remember Marco [Minnemann], our drummer, came to our table beaming like a kid and said: “I just talked to Jimmy Page and he’d love to meet you.” So I was like: “Oh my God, I’m gonna finally meet Jimmy Page.” So we’re like five feet away – I’m literally just about to say: “Hello Mr Page, my name is Joe Satriani” – when some big guy steps in front of us and says: “You can’t be here. Go back to your table.” We were two little kids, y’know, being told to go back to our classroom. I got so close!

Joe Satriani - What Happens Next album review

Henry Yates

Henry Yates has been a freelance journalist since 2002 and written about music for titles including The Guardian, The Telegraph, NME, Classic Rock, Guitarist, Total Guitar and Metal Hammer. He is the author of Walter Trout's official biography, Rescued From Reality, a music pundit on Times Radio and BBC TV, and an interviewer who has spoken to Brian May, Jimmy Page, Ozzy Osbourne, Ronnie Wood, Dave Grohl, Marilyn Manson, Kiefer Sutherland and many more.