JOE SATRIANI Reflects On New Album: ‘Writing “Shapeshifting” Allowed Me to Be Myself In As Many Different Ways As Possible”

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On April 10th, world renowned guitar innovator and virtuoso, Joe Satriani, will be releasing his latest studio album, “Shapeshifting” via Sony Music/Legacy Recordings. Joe comes alive as he cranks up the energy level and diversity throughout the record from the melodic rocker of “Big Distortion,” to the heartfelt sorrowfulness of “Teardrops” to the playful loftiness of “Perfect Dust.” He takes listeners on an emotional journey, expressing himself, and his feelings while bending sound and the listeners’ mind in equal measure.

Contributor Robert Cavuoto had the opportunity to speak with one of the most revered guitarists of our time about his latest release, gain insight into a few of his songs, and give us an update about the band’s European Tour in light of the current COVID-19 pandemic. Read the transcript of their conversation below.

“Shapeshifting” Album Artwork

I love the diversity of  the tracks in this album. Tracks like “Big Distortion” or “Teardrops” have different vibes and evoke different feelings yet tie nicely into the record as a whole. With the album title being “Shapeshifting”, was the music intentionally written focusing on distinctiveness?

I started writing this album a little more than a year ago as I was on this kick of not to force myself into any one category. That’s a really good practice when you are going to make an album as it helps you eliminate external factors that may slow you down. It enables you to pick a studio, musicians, producer, and engineer knowing the style and kind of album you are going to make. I noticed when you make those kinds of decisions it cuts out all different avenues for interesting expression. You are eliminating certain kinds of songs because you don’t think they will fit into the style of the album. I was not in a rush, so felt I should just keep writing free-form, waiting until I see songs that I can get excited about. I started to notice that the songs I really liked didn’t fit together on an album [laughing]. I had to keep shifting my style in order to play these songs. That got me on the idea of shapeshifting. After that, I wrote the title track “Shapeshifting,” and I thought it would be a cool flagship song. It’s more of an introduction into the concept. I wanted to write a song that is more of an invitation to the other goodies on the album. I wanted to represent this feeling and thought about what it would be like if you had to play and learn new styles when displaying them for somebody. It would force you to go into a creative metamorphosis for roughly four minutes. Then I started thinking about Greek myths and people turning into animals or other people. I thought it was cool but didn’t want to get all science fiction on everybody; it’s still an interesting concept. Once I held it in my heart, I felt like I had my artistic license to go ahead and write songs that were so different from one another like the three you mentioned as they are so different in every aspect. From a playing point of view, it’s such a wonderful introduction into being able to phrase things in a million different ways. You don’t get that when you are doing a blues album as you just start quoting famous blues players. That basically means that you are stealing, repeating, and paying homage when you really want to do your own stuff. This was the opposite situation and allowed me to be myself in as many different ways as possible. It gave me so much

It must have been tough to sequence the songs so they would all work together?

It was [laughing]! We had eight different sequences. When we were working on overdubs and the mixing stage, there was a coffee table in the studio control room. On little yellow flashcards, I wrote some general information about each song like the title, time elapse, and BPM. I told everybody that I’m going to leave the cards there and if there is a song that anyone hates but doesn’t want to mention, they can simply turn the card over [laughing]. There would be no repercussions! I told them if they come up with a sequence idea to move the cards around. For the next two weeks, I would see new arrangements. I took it all in, and then I brought my concepts of sequencing to everybody. In my mind, the key signatures are extremely important, so I told them “Shapeshifting” has to be the first song and “Yesterday’s Yesterday” has to be the last song and that is all there is to it! The rest of it we have to make work as I shared my idea of the importance of complementary key signatures. We ended up trying eight different sequences and actually listened to them as a whole album. We ended up using our second sequence which had 13 songs. We originally had 15 songs so we didn’t know if we would use 10 or 13. I was happy everybody agreed that the flow of the key signature seemed to be the most important part.

Photo by Robert Cavuoto

Is creating a mood and evoking a feeling from an instrumental song the hardest part of what you do?

Yeah, it’s tough. You are hitting upon a very important part of how instrumental music gets used by your audience. You can never control how anyone uses music. To a certain extent, you just have to move on and embrace the fact that you have no control over whether people will like it or not. If they want to use a sad song as a love song or a love song as a sad song, you have to let them do it [laughing]. There are subtle things that will probably get you in the ballpark. One of the songs you mentioned earlier, “Teardrops” is a song that is obviously not a happy song; it’s a song about someone deep in thought. Because the title is “Teardrops,” the harmonics echo the rhythm in the pronunciation of the title. I knew I was getting close to bringing people to what I’m thinking about. They will never figure out what drove me to write the song and I know that. Unless someone asks, they are going to come up with their own idea. Even if they read my explanation, they may say, “To Hell with that!” [Laughing]. When I explained it to the guys in the band, it was based on saying things or doing things that I want to apologize for. The person I’m speaking with doesn’t have to accept my apologies. They can forget my name and face; I’ll never bother them again. I’m fully accepting responsibility for this terrible thing. This was an example of an overblown emotional moment that I practice when I’m writing songs. You may want to write a song about regret, but in reality, you have very little to regret, so you create a story like I did. What if I had done something really bad, like I could have saved a person but didn’t for some reason, then I have to explain to people what happened. In order to make that feeling so palpable that you can represent it with a couple of notes, you amplify and fictionalize it by going to the extreme if I’m doing this enough. This song was very sparse, even on the original demo. Producing with Jim Scott, we noticed that it was more effective when we held things back. When we did the final mix, he wanted to hold things back even more. We turned a few things off here and there to create additional drama. The process of including the team into my fantasy or overblown feeling really helped everyone make that song unique and separate from “Big Distortion” or “All My Friends are Here.”

“Teardrops” is my favorite song due to that simplicity, epic feel, and flowing melody. What did the gong strikes at the end symbolize?

When we were playing around with that, we were thinking timelessness, foreboding, and history. When you add the bells and the kettle drums almost have a religious feeling. I think the person opening up is reflecting on past discretions and he is confessing. We were looking for a thing that would push those buttons to make you feel this way. If you look at the person and say you’re sorry, you don’t have to accept your apology, and walk away; you realize that you are a total failure in that situation. I was also thinking about big spaces between notes, which makes people think of things that are far away that they don’t want to touch.

Photo by Robert Cavuoto

I thought the song structure of “Big Distortion” was set up with a more traditional approach of verses, chorus, and bridges. It’s as if you could have easily add lyrics. Do you agree?

Yes! I was thinking about playing with Mick Ronson and David Bowie in Spiders from Mars with some big nasty guitar. It’s a celebration of old Rock & Roll with a new attitude. It’s funny because that is the only song whose title doesn’t go deep. It’s not a subject that I had to percolate on, cook something up, or admit to something personal. It was all about fun and the sound of that guitar. I have to remind myself it is okay to be light, just like it is okay to be heavy. It can’t all be about tragedy and its okay to have a song that is fun to listen to.

Christopher Guest of Spinal Tap fame played on the album. What song did he play on, and did he show up to the studio wearing his spandex pants, snapping his gum, and turning his amp up to 11?

That would have been great. He is a really talented person. When we were doing some video extras for the Chickenfoot live DVD, he was kind enough to come to the studio as himself and then morphed into Nigel Tufnel right in front of me. I can remember him bring the wig in a box. He said, “When I put this on, I’m no longer, Chris!” Sure enough, as soon as it put it on, the English accent came out and started gum chewing. [laughing]. For this record, I sent him the demo for “Waiting.” I told him it was an odd song and was thinking of adding a mandolin part. He is a master mandolin player and plays two hours-a-day religiously. He was a little far away to come down but liked the song  In a couple of days, he sent me two great performances. At the time, the track wasn’t 100% edited, so by the end of the session; I had his two performances. I added piano, a Maxophone, and some whistling, which started as a joke but felt we should keep. It was a fun organic process to get that song off the ground.

Photo by Robert Cavuoto

I was never really sure if the guys in Spinal Tap really played their instruments, I guess he did.

Those three guys are all trained musicians from when they were kids. Plus, they have that extra disposition that regular musicians don’t have; they are professional actors. They are really good at memorization and turning it on when it counts; it’s like a superpower. Rock musicians go up there and hope for the best as they can’t help themselves. A few times when I was on stage with those guys, I’ve noticed they are different than your average musician. They have a way of performing that is extra from a regular Rock & Roll performer. It’s remarkable to see it happen right in front of you as they are acting while they are playing pushing the discipline further.

In the past, I felt that people were reluctant to listen to rock and hard rock instrumental artists. But lately, with artists like you, Steve Vai, and John 5, making it highly entertaining I believe things are turning around. Do you feel that instrumental music is more widely accepted from when you first started?

I don’t know, my perception is colored by the type of music I listen to. As a kid, I listen to a lot of instrumental classical music and instrumental jazz music. My favorite artist Jimi Hendrix had an instrumental song on his first album, so it just seemed natural to me that it existed next to vocal oriented music. I do know people want to feel that they are being invited into a song. That point was illustrated to me one day in the studio by James Scott while doing an overdub. At one point, he said to me, “I want to know, what is my part?” He said it almost laughing. We talked about songs where you immediately feel invited in because the writer has added this perfect spot for you to sing-along to the perfect phrase with the perfect melody. He questioned me on my phrasing and thought if we can refine it as it would help him understand what his part was in the song. That was where someone crystallized the way I felt. When I listen to other people’s instrumental music, I can understand where they fail. People may find it confusing or have too many notes. It’s because they don’t know where their part is. We all use music to make us feel good, so it’s important to think that.

Photo by Robert Cavuoto

Can you give us an update on your upcoming European tour with the President’s ban on international travel and what is going on around the world with COVID-19?

I have relatives who live in Milan, Italy so I knew exactly what was happening on the ground. I alerted the staff a week ago about not sending my closest buddies, my wife, and me to a place where we will only get locked down. There was a lot of denial with the European promoters, but then finally, everyone realized the significance of it. Some promoters kept insisting up until a few days ago, that if we canceled, it would be on our shoulders, and unable to claim the virus as the problem. We thought they were nuts and days away from an apocalypse. They finally realized and we canceled the European tour, which we will be moved to 12 months from now. I don’t know what will happen with our tour of South America in late July. We are still looking at a North American tour in late September. I’m taking it one day at a time. And most importantly I urge everyone to be mindful about what’s happening and staying safe and healthy.

JOE SATRIANI RESCHEDULED “SHAPESHIFTING” EUROPEAN TOUR 2021

April 9 – Zurich, Switzerland – Volkshaus Zurich
April 10 – Winterbach, Germany – Salierhalle
April 12 – Aarhus, Denmark – Train
April 13 – Odense, Denmark – Posten
April 14 – Copenhagen, Denmark – Amager Bio
April 15 – Stockholm, Sweden – Fryshuset
April 16 – Oslo, Norway – Rockefeller
April 19 – Berlin, Germany – Huxleys
April 20 – Nuremberg, Germany – Löwensaal
April 21 – Karlsruhe, Germany – Tollhaus
April 23 – Antwerp, Belgium – De Roma Borgerhout
April 24 – Enschede, Netherlands – Muziekcentrum Enschede
April 25 – Amsterdam, Netherlands – Melkweg the max
April 26 – Heerlen, Netherlands – RABOzaal Heerlen
April 27 – Oberhausen, Germany – Turbinenhalle
April 30 – Birmingham Symphony Hall
May 01 – UK, Bexhill De La Warr Pavilion
May 02 – UK, Manchester Bridgewater Hall
May 04 – UK. London Palladium
May 05 – UK, Sage Gateshead
May 06 – UK, Glasgow O2 Academy

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