Songwriter Interviews

Joe Satriani

by Greg Prato

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When it comes to "concept albums," you're forgiven if you automatically think of musicians wearing capes, over-the-top stage productions, symphonic arrangements, and hard-to-decipher storylines [take a gander here to see what I mean]. As it turns out, Joe Satriani's 15th solo studio album overall, Shockwave Supernova, is indeed a conceptual work, but here's the catch: like many of his albums, it is all instrumental.

First attracting the attention of guitar fans in the late '80s (when his former student, Steve Vai, began mentioning his name in quite a few interviews), Satch quickly turned heads not only with his impressive technique on the instrument, but with his knack for penning instantly memorable melodies, as heard in "Satch Boogie," "Always With Me, Always With You," "Surfing with the Alien" and "Flying in a Blue Dream." And stops along the way with such renowned artists as Mick Jagger, Deep Purple, and most recently, the super group Chickenfoot, have only helped spread the word further.

When speaking with Songfacts, Satriani discussed the storyline behind Shockwave Supernova, the stories behind several Satch classics, and how the legendary Jimi Hendrix continues to inspire his playing.
Greg Prato (Songfacts): Let's discuss Shockwave Supernova.

Joe Satriani: It's got 15 songs on it, which makes it long. [Laughs] Longer than most. I was very happy to get the green light from the guys at Legacy to be able to tell the full story of Shockwave Supernova to the fans. I explained to them, it was going to take 15 songs to do it. It's a concept album that the audience doesn't really need to know about - in terms of the concept.

It was a writing/composing/production device that allowed me to pull in lots of songs that I had been writing and used to support a story about a perceived alter-ego of mine, who calls himself "Shockwave Supernova." He is the overt electric rock guitar player on stage, and he goes through so many changes over the course of the album - reflecting on his life - which leads, eventually, to him realizing that he needs to turn into something better. So he's got to morph himself into a better version.

It all started with the end of the tour in Singapore, when I was walking out on stage, trying to remind myself not to play with my teeth anymore. And then, a few moments later, there I was, on my knees, playing with my teeth! I was like, "Who is this person who does this?"

It turned into a daydream that turned into a real idea for an album, which was that guy is "Shockwave Supernova," who I've been using to bring myself out of my normal shell, when I've got to go public. And it was really a lot to write about. So that's it in a very long, large nutshell, the story of the record.

Songfacts: I was taken by some of the song titles on the album ("On Peregrine Wings," "Butterfly and Zebra," "Is There No Heaven," etc.). I assume they fit into the storyline of the album?

Satriani: For me it does, but as I said before, it was so important that the album could be accessible in any form - in little bits, song by song, side one, side two, re-sequenced by the fans however they like. There is no narrative that anybody has to follow. But each of the songs in my twisted view relate to this character as he remembers his whole career, and the crazy moments, the desperate moments, the wonderful moments, the moments that were just fun. They all relate to that story.

Songfacts: How difficult was it writing from a conceptual standpoint for an all-instrumental album?

Satriani: This device wound up being a very powerful motivator for me. It was not difficult at all. In fact, once I grasped onto the idea of the concept record, I was off and running. There were so many songs that I thought, "This would be great to represent how this guy is just totally in "the physical" - enjoying his body, enjoying playing guitar, being on stage. And then this song is perfect for a complete soul-searching moment, where he's just all closed in within himself, wondering, "Where am I going with my life?"

I really got into that concept, and it may have been because I had started to work on an animated sci-fi series, and I was in that mood where I was constantly thinking about stories. I wanted to write things that were more cinematic, and every time I'd come back from tour, I'd write another hundred musical cues for this sci-fi series I've been working on. So it seemed like it all went hand-in-hand, as well as this music I was picking for the album had to be very deep in terms of the story. It really did have to represent a certain aspect of the character's life.

The "animated sci-fi series" that Satch talks about is called Crystal Planet [not to be confused with a Satriani album from 1998 by the same name], which sounds quite intriguing, as read by this info from a recent press release:

"In a creative and engaging alternative venture, Satriani, a lifelong science fiction fan, has reached out to the future, through the medium of animation. Finally recognizing the on-stage symmetry with his alter ego allowed Satriani to also take a risk on this particular style of storytelling. He says, 'Guitarist Ned Evett and I have created an animated series called Crystal Planet. The actual Crystal Planet is our very own Earth, set billions of years in the future. The hero of the show uses music generated by a unique electric guitar to travel through time while the show's characters struggle to preserve the future and past of humankind.'"
Songfacts: When you come up with a riff, are you thinking of anything in particular? For instance, when you were writing the title track to Surfing with the Alien, were you thinking of the Sliver Surfer comic book character [who is on the album's cover]?

Satriani: Most of the time, when I start writing a song, it starts with a riff. Sometimes they don't. Sometimes I'll write the melody or the chord sequence, whereas I am sort of right in the middle of the primary inspiration.

And it might be something deep. It might be something purely light and physical - something like "Summer Song," I was just thinking how great it was being a teenager and getting out of school and the beginning of summer. So that's a very light theme, but when you hold on to that feeling, that memory, it helps you write specifically in that direction, so you don't include too much other stuff. And then you're writing a love song that focuses on a person, and that keeps you focused in that way.

Sometimes, the titles though are not as easily distilled until the end. Because sometimes, a song might be about something so complex that you can't come up with three words that summarize it enough. When I was writing "Surfing with the Alien," I had no idea who the Silver Surfer was. That phrase just popped into my head, and I wrote the song thinking, "If I ever met an alien, what if they didn't want to turn our planet into a piece of charcoal or eat us or whatever? What if they were looking for fun?"

I had never seen a science fiction movie about that, so I thought, "What would that sound like?" And it wasn't until I handed in the album to the label, that the funny series of connections led to putting the Silver Surfer on the cover. [Laughs]. You never know with those things.

Songfacts: Do you ever find yourself writing a song and you realize that it sounds a bit like a previous song?

Satriani: I think it's a healthy thing to look and to investigate yourself. When you're writing stuff, to go back, and if you have the slightest feeling of, "Hey, did I do that before?", just go through your library and check it out. Because it's fun to play music, and it's fun to play guitar, and sometimes, the fun clouds your judgment or your memory - that maybe you've done it before or maybe someone else did it. Maybe you're copying your best friend's favorite song or something, who knows? But the nature of inspiration is that it's sort of putting blinders on. You're so obsessed with a particular song or feeling, that you're deeply involved with it so much, that you don't realize, "Hey, that's somebody else's song." You're just rewriting it. But it's not a bad thing - the process of it.

Let's put it this way: If you and I were in a blues band, the only way that we could write new music was if we copied 90 percent of any blues song ever written, because our audience would not think it was blues unless it sounded like all the blues that went before it. So if you and I were in a techno band/EDM kind of thing, same kind of thing, you would say, "How about this as a beat?" And we'd be like, "Well, everybody does that, but that's how we stay in our style."

So let's take one step back from that and look at country music. Traditional country music doesn't use a whole lot of chord changes, but they've accepted a level of copying as a way of staying within the zone of calling it "country music." So then you take it a step further back: What about shred guitar player albums? Or metal albums? Everybody copies each other to a certain degree. We've sort of agreed that copying to only a certain level is OK.

So I think you kind of need to do that with yourself, when you look at it and go, "'Surfing with the Alien' and 'Summer Song' are kind of close, so what's different about it?" In other words, you have to prove to yourself, "How can I do this and feel good about it? What am I bringing to it that's this new version of an uptempo, happy, guitar instrumental that's making it different from the other one I wrote?"

And I think that leads you to move forward. From hanging around with musicians my whole life, it's a natural process - everybody talks like that. You show somebody a new song, and they go, "Oh, that sounds like this one, this one, and this one put together, except you turned it upside down." [Laughs]

Songfacts: Let's discuss the inspiration behind several songs, starting with the title track from Shockwave Supernova.

Satriani: The funny thing about that is I wasn't planning on doing it on slide guitar. I brought it in, we finished everything except the main melody, and then my co-producer [John Cuniberti] said to me, "You're going to do it on slide guitar, right?" And I was like, "No, I wasn't planning on it." And he said, "No, you've got to do it on slide guitar. It doesn't work unless it's on the slide guitar." So that day, I had to pull it together really fast, but it was very exciting.

Satriani scored a commercial breakthrough with his 1987 all-instrumental release Surfing with the Alien, which peaked at #29 on the Billboard 200 and eventually sold over a million copies. His next album, Flying in a Blue Dream (1989), featured Satch on vocals, with two of these vocal tunes - the ballad "I Believe" and the ZZ Top-esque rocker "Big Bad Moon" - issued as singles.
Songfacts: What was the lyrical inspiration behind the song "I Believe"?

Satriani: It was a difficult period in my life, where my father was in the process of passing away, and I was struggling with finishing up the Flying in a Blue Dream record. I was actually writing other songs that were instrumental pieces for the album. I'd be taking breaks during those periods, and I'd pick up the acoustic guitar and would start playing music.

There was a big painting in our apartment that a friend of my wife's had done. She had worked my wife's face into this figure, and I used to look at that quite a bit when I would take breaks from working on the album. So I wrote a song really about how difficult life is, but how ultimately, you have hope and you can change things for the better. It was really about writing that song and looking at that picture.

Songfacts: What about "Always With Me, Always With You"?

Satriani: That was a straight-up love song for my wife. I remember writing that one afternoon. The funniest thing about that one is the actual recording and mixing of it turned out so different than what I remember my original idea was. I thought it would be a very deep, lush, echo-y kind of a thing. And when we got to the studio, it turned out that all those arpeggios sounded better completely dry and direct, and that all the drum performances that Jeff Campitelli had played on actually didn't fit, and we wound up not using like, 99 percent of the drums. All we wound up using is the kick drum in the bridge.

But it turned out to be a very different recording approach... or mixing approach. It really helped the album, that when that song came on, suddenly there was not like a rock band. It was a different sort of canvas. So it was a bit of a revelation, actually, finishing that. It changed our thoughts about what we could do with a guitar instrumental.

Songfacts: "Satch Boogie"?

Satriani: It was about two weeks before I was supposed to go out on tour with Jonas Hellborg - the Swedish bass player. I was going to Europe - this is back in like, November of '86. I got in a car accident and got some whiplash, so I was sent home with one of those big neck collars and a nice bottle of pills.

I couldn't really do much, so I just stayed home for a week, and as I sat with my guitar, I couldn't look down at my guitar because of the neck brace. I was thinking, "I might as well just write some music as I'm sitting here," and I had this crazy idea about what it would sound like if there was a horn section trying to play with Gene Krupa on the drums, as his set was falling down a flight of stairs. And I thought, "This is the kind of thing you only think of if you're on painkillers and in a neck brace!"

So I wrote "Satch Boogie" with that image in my mind. It took a very long time to work that out, since I couldn't look at the guitar neck because of the neck brace. I remember it vividly, that whole process.

Songfacts: How much of an influence would you say Jimi Hendrix is still on your playing, and can you think of some songs that were directly influenced by Hendrix?

Satriani: Oh, so much. The thing that I really constantly remember from Jimi's playing was he had a way of being different song to song. He just would not hit you over the head with this same guitar sound, over and over again. He would have something different. And then his playing would be different. Like on one song, he could play fast and fluid, and then on the next, it sounded like he was struggling to play slow. And one song, his guitar would be spacey, and the other song it would be clear and played right in your face with nothing special added to it. And I loved that. Just being a fan of putting on a record and listening to it all the way through, by the time you got to the end, you'd go, "Wow. I've got to hear that again. That had so many different sides to it." And what you were really hearing was all the different sides of his musicianship.

I constantly remind myself that it's OK in this day and age where people really do like to homogenize and compact and promote one idea and hit you over the head with it, Jimi's era really allowed for him to be much more creative with a guitar. And I'm using "the same one" - I've got the same six strings on it, and there's no reason to do the same thing over and over again.

This record certainly bears witness to the fact that I was influenced by his creativity and creating many different guitar sounds, and that's what we did with this record: We allowed so many different guitar sounds to be the hallmark of each song. We didn't worry about trying to promote "Joe Satriani the guitar player." It's really about the music.

June 19, 2015.
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Comments: 4

  • Tim Barrett Krock 101.5 from OahuCelebrity Theater 1989. Greatest musician I have ever seen, Stu Hamm on Bass, wow! Thanks Greg, Thanks Joe!
  • from San FransiscoReally enjoyed this interview. ..especially liked how you added a few videos into it.nice touch! Joe is just a class act in my book...a very talented one i might add.
  • Phil from ShebolaI've always been inspired by sci-fi movies as in Predator or Flash Gordon, to play guitar. Something mystical about that kind of inspiration to play guitar, especially outer space because it seems as if there is infinite space for inspiration to make strange beautiful music, if that makes any sense.
  • Peter Chrisp from AustraliaThat's a brilliant interview great reading
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