Fire up your Engines: Joe Satriani, The Master of Creation

Lasers splashing off his chrome guitar, wrap-around shades imbuing his image with an otherworldly aura, Joe Satriani seems somehow extra-terrestrial. Then he begins to play and you know it's true. Satch is not of this Earth. Can't be.

He arrived in the mid-'80s, at first without fanfare outside the purview of afew informed guitar maniacs who managed to get their paws on the Joe Satriani or Not Of This Earth releases. Then came 1987's Surfing With the Alien - and "Satch Boogie" - and we were enlightened. His fretwork on that superhuman effort was beyond compare. A mixture of Van Halen-esque boogie rock and absolute shred-o-matic soloing, the track became a shining star in the instrumental rock pantheon. Radio was mesmerized. So were we.

And Satch never let up. Hit followed hit: "Ice Nine" and "Always With Me, Always With You" from Surfing..., the title track from Flying in a Blue Dream, "Summer Song" from The Extremist. These tracks have elevated Joe Satriani into an elite group of musicians - possibly the most successful - to thrive in a musical world without words.

In large part he has achieved this due to his strong sense of melody and his understanding that all songs desperately need a memorable musical phrase. Joe knows that a solo without a melody is not a song, it's showboating, and mere showboaters tend to fade into obscurity like shooting stars. But while Satch has enthralled radio with melody, his concerts are still full of shred. Mind-blowing shred. Warp-speed shred.

Even so, it isn't his speed that most impresses, it is his fluency with the instrument. It is his seamless transition from blues moaning to jazzy chromaticism, to exotic and mysterious and enigmatic melodic statement, to outrageous "Borg Sex" talk - his command of the instrument - that is his most notable musical trait. He flows between modal moods without hesitation. He uses every position on the guitar like it's his favorite.

Engines of Creation, Satriani's newest collection of wonders, is at first listen a radically bold - maybe even controversial - leap into a musical sphere very foreign to many guitarists. Looking for a brave new world in which to showcase his talents, Joe and co-producer (and past collaborator) Eric Caudieux invaded the space of DJs and re-mixers to put together a slamming techno-meets-guitar hero masterwork. In concert, keyboardist and rhythm guitarist Caudieux joins Satch and long-time bassist Stu Hamm and drummer Jeff Campitelli to bring the sequenced and effects-laden Engines... tracks to life. In the following exclusive interview (and in Part 2 to follow), Joe talks about creativity, critics, and crossing boundaries. How did you become interested in the techno-electronica direction that you took on Engines of Creation?

Satriani: General interest, I guess. [It happened] over the last five years or so, traveling around the world touring and being exposed to different types of music when I wasn't really pressed to spend a lot of time writing. Usually when you go on tour you're there to take a break from writing and actually just concentrate on performing. So I'm actually more open to what's going on, and certainly outside the U.S. techno and electronica and the general hip-hop generation style stuff is thriving. You find it being played on all kinds of media out there. I was exposed to it, was liking it, and as I was preparing to do something different. I didn't know exactly what: a classical-oriented record? A blues record? Or just something like this. I thought, "Well that might be a real interesting thing to do," since I'd just done about three records and spent a lot of years really focusing on what I do in relationship to a live band, in the studio or on the stage. Did you spend time in any techno dance clubs anywhere?

Satriani: That's stuff that happens when you're out on tour and have nothing else to do. You just wind up walking down the street on a night off, and you follow the noise, and there you are. But it's interesting: I actually had more success finding more unusual music on the Internet. And there it's totally unprogrammed. Even though music is everywhere these days, it's all so programmed. The Internet is still somewhat free of that, where you can sort of just poke around the world and get it unfiltered. By programmed you mean by music directors or corporations?

Satriani: There's more music around, but more and more music is made for a particular context, and it doesn't necessarily work outside of that context. But within that context it's heavily directed. Like, you're in a hotel and you get in the elevator and there's music in the elevator. They don't play just any music in the elevator. They play it on the airplane when you're waiting to take off, a special kind of "We're about to take off" music. And everything that you hear on television is carefully picked for the context to be delivered. And it's been that way in radio ever since its inception, really. Certain radio stations got certain advertisers' dollars behind them, [and became] geared for certain people. That's what I mean by context. When you were surfing the net and listening, were these widely known artists that inspired you, or lesser known artists?

Satriani: I whittled it down as I decided to make a project out of it. I started to think, "Well it's always good to have a few records - anywhere from one to maybe six records - that you can bring with you to the studio to say, "This record has got the best sound, this record has got the craziest bunch of noises on it." Or, "This record has really interesting arrangements," or "This writing is great." I was impressed by records that were good, but had a special commitment to the theme. And to the direction. The reason why that was important to me was that I didn't want to just do a techno-flavored record, or a nod to electronica. I wanted to make a real Joe Satriani record with real melodies, and real songs, and everything that I demand out of myself when I make a record. But I did want it to be in a different style. So I thought, "Well I want to at least find records that I think have that commitment to direction," so it doesn't sound like I'm flirting with a particular style just for the hell of it. So what records were those?

Satriani: Records like Vegas by Crystal Method, Homogenic by Bjork, Protection by Massive Attack, The Fat of the Land by Prodigy. God, it seems like such a long time ago - we finished the record last July. So I've characteristically moved on from there. But that gives you a pretty good indication. Those records were all different from each other, but I thought they all really stuck. Within the grooves of each of those records they really presented a great theme. In other words, you can put on that record if you're in a particular mood, and listen to the whole thing, and never be disappointed because they kept the vibe up all the time. And some of them, like Massive Attack or Bjork, I thought that they had just incredible dedication to serving up these great vocal performances. And I knew that I wanted to - and that my job was - to replace that. And I was really curious with how they dealt with the surrounding music, and how they allowed this unique vocal performance to happen and yet still do it in a modern way, not in an old way, rock 'n' roll style. I've had plenty of experience writing and recording music where the guitar plays the melody. I've done that a lot, and people have heard me do it a lot. But this is a new context, and I couldn't just turn on some groove machine like I was doing "Summer Song." I wanted to make sure that it really fit, like a glove.

That meant that I had to change my sensibilities a little bit. I had to shed some idiosyncracies - some stylistic twitches here and there - to really get the two, the background and the performance, to really come together. Part of the problem is that a lot of the stuff that I wanted to create was coming from a style of music that actually shunned guitar and guitar solos. And so that was the other thing where we thought, 'A lot of the time you listen to a great electronica record or trip-hop kind of thing, and there's nobody playing any kind of solo. Once you sort of just do your version of it, and stick a solo in it, it may not hold up. It's not a viable form. Or people may hear it and go, "Wait a minute, shouldn't this groove go on for six minutes with nothing else?" (laughs). It was funny because even though I had a handful of records that I'm excited to put on at different times of the day, I also knew that I had a challenge. We were going to be doing something that no one had quite done. We had felt that no one had really done it yet: No one had put the guitar and the techno thing - for lack of a better phrase - together, totally committed from track one all the way through the last track. A lot of people, especially guitarists, consider the whole techno genre to be anti-musician. How do you feel about that?

Satriani: Oh I think that's entirely, completely wrong. There's nothing else I can say about that. Anytime someone has to make a musical decision, that require musical talent. I think it's quite obvious that there are quite a lot of people who can play instruments, who play stuff that's considered to be tasteless. There is a deluge of recorded material out there that is uninspired, unoriginal, copycat, useless, insipid, annoying. To me that's always the danger. It's not the inspired guy in a Top 40 band with a heart of gold. Or somebody pushing the envelope and putting things together. Whether it's a 13-year-old kid playing the blues who has to fight prejudice because [people think] he's too young, or he came from the wrong side of town, or he's the wrong color, whatever - or it's somebody that's taking a piece of music and doing something that's never been done before and just getting trashed for it, it's ridiculous. So it doesn't matter to me. In my life as a musician, I've seen more non-musicians with guitars around their bodies than not. And then, unfortunately, I've seen a few really talented people that had the access to modern instruments. Like it or not, the computer is an extension of modern electronic instruments.

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