Joe Satriani's 'Chome Dome': 'I Never Had Good Rock 'n' Roll Hair' (Q&A)
The Grammy-nominated guitarist celebrates three decades in the music business with a boxed set in the shape of his head, a biography and a world tour.
Joe Satriani is recognized as one of the greatest guitarists in the world. In his early years, he gave lessons to the likes of Steve Vai and Metallica's Kirk Hammett and has released 14 albums since his '86 debut, Not of This Earth, garnering 15 Grammy nominations along the way.
Legacy Recordings will release Joe Satriani: The Complete Studio Records, a 15-CD box set, on April 22, which includes a full disc of previously unreleased tracks. The set also comes in the shape of a "chrome dome," a lifelike miniature sculpture of Satriani, with removable sunglasses that house two USB drives featuring the same package, available on his website for $185. The Westbury, Long Island, native is also the subject of noted rock biographer Jake Brown's Strange Beautiful Music, a comprehensive "musical memoir" to be published by BenBella Books next month.
How did this "chrome dome" package come about?
We wanted to give the audience the audiophile experience the way we hear it in the studio. We had the whole catalog redone in 96k 24-bit, the best any human can ever hear this stuff, remastered by my producer John Cuniberti. This is an exciting thing to have, though I might add, it's a bit creepy to see your own head in chrome. I was photographed at every possible angle in 3D to make several different prototypes, which was pretty scary because it looks exactly like me. But it's ingenious the way they figured it out.
It's lucky you have a shaved head.
How's that for irony? My whole life of losing my hair was leading up to this moment. I first shaved my head in early '96. It started to get really thin. To tell you the truth, I never had really good rock 'n' roll hair. It was a joke with my friends. I could play and looked all right, but what was up with the hair? When it started to fall out, I had to come up with something new. I was out jogging and ran past a Walgreens, which was having a sale on hair clippers. So I bought one, got back to the apartment, shaved half my head then called my wife and son over. Once you do half, you've got to do the other half, but I eased into it. I had about four millimeters of hair for a while. When I was on tour in Portugal, opening for AC/DC one night, I took out the clippers, forgot to put the attachment on, and before I knew it, realized I had gone right down to the skin. I went out there with sunglasses on, and it made me more mysterious than I had been, so I just stuck with it.
Why are you putting out a career retrospective and biography at this point?
The book was something that came out of the blue. Jake Brown reached out and said he wanted to write a book about my creative process, so he did an extensive round of interviews with me about every single record. And then he talked with every producer, engineer, musician, manager … anyone who had ever worked with me. The idea was to keep it about the music, not my personal life. Once we got started, the publisher wanted me to tell my story. I really had to get involved in writing and finding a voice for the book -- sort of like the way I would do it with an album. The production of the record, the style, is what reaches people. I just went over everything and tried not to change my goofy, conversational way of speaking. I made it more focused so people could get the real story behind each of these songs and albums. And it's filled with all the wonderful and horrible things that happened along the way.
You are known primarily as an instrumentalist.
Actually, I've made the mistake of singing on my records many times. There were six markedly different vocal tracks on Flying in a Blue Dream where I sang in character. But I never tried to sell myself as a real singer. If there was a piece of music that needed vocals for it to work, I would do it. I'm not a real singer, but I can vocalize. I've taken singing lessons, but there's a difference between being able to sing and being a real singer.
You decided to become a guitar player the day Jimi Hendrix died.
One afternoon, I was suited up for football practice, standing outside the gym, getting ready to take the field, when one of my teammates told me that Jimi Hendrix had just died. It hit me like a ton of bricks. I turned around, walked into the coach's office and told him I was quitting to become a guitar player. And that was it.
Has anyone ever come close to Hendrix as a guitarist in your estimation?
I don't believe you can pit one against the other. It's not sports we're talking about. There are no statistics or a laboratory test. It's music. It's art. A few years ago, I went on an Experience Hendrix tour with Ernie Isley, who was a young kid when Jimi was playing with the Isley Brothers, living in the house where he was growing up. And I've got to say, watching him from the side of the stage every night was very emotional and powerful. Ernie had that thing Hendrix had. Seeing him was as close as I got to watching Hendrix play.
How did the Surfing With the Aliens concept come about? Were you a fan of the Marvel comic book character the Silver Surfer?
That came about completely by accident. The album was supposed to be called The Lords of Karma, but I decided to change it to something to prove I didn't take myself too seriously, that I had a sense of humor. This production manager at the label, Jim Kozlowski, had the nickname "Silver Surfer," when he worked at WBAB radio and decided to put his namesake on the cover. I had no idea who that was. My parents didn't allow comic books in the house. He knew someone from Marvel, and we got permission to use the cover. I didn't start out to use that as a shtick. It just fell on me and it stuck. And then when I shaved my head, people thought I was planning it all along. Now with the chrome head I have no excuse.
What was it like playing with Sammy Hagar, Michael Anthony and Chad Smith in Chickenfoot?
It made me feel like I was 14 again playing in a high school band. Because that was exactly what I wanted -- to be a guitar player in a traditional four-piece group, like Led Zeppelin or Black Sabbath. My solo career was kind of an accident. I never thought about doing instrumental music, but I fell in love with it. When I had the opportunity to do Chickenfoot, I felt like I was back in the high school gym playing with friends. It turned out we all had similar influences, and that became our sound … the stuff we grew up listening to.
Are you considering forming a blues trio with Sammy?
Every time I talk to Sam, we come up with the craziest ideas. He's just a ball of energy, an exciting person to be friends with. He's very creative, so every time I bring in a song, his mind starts going like he wants to turn it into the next big thing. We have been threatening each other to do this stripped-down blues record for years, and we might be coming closer to doing that. But we both are very busy, so who knows? We'll get around to it.
Ever see a show in the round at the Westbury Music Fair?
Absolutely. The first two concerts I ever went to were Jethro Tull and Chicago Transit Authority.
You've been nominated for 15 Grammy awards but never won one.
I'm not even the losing-est guy. But that's really cool. When I started out doing this, I thought I was going to get run out of town immediately after the first album. To get all those nominations is really a great thing. When they eliminated the rock instrumental category, I celebrated, realizing I couldn't lose anymore.
What's up for the summer?
We resume the Unstoppable Momentum Tour in June. We're doing a kick-off show at the Old Westbury Theater on Post Avenue, where I used to go as a kid to see movies for 50 cents. And we're also doing a show at the Iridium that's being filmed for PBS. We're off to Europe for two months, and South America in the first part of the fall, then Australia and New Zealand before the end of the year. I've got a new touring band with a rhythm section of bass player Bryan Beller and drummer Marco Minnemann from the Aristocrats, as well as Mike Keneally, who's been playing keyboards and guitars for my last couple of records.