strange beautiful music: a musical memoir (paperback)


Shockwave Supernova — 2016

The new paperback edition of Strange Beautiful Music includes an all-new chapter detailing Joe's 2016 studio album Shockwave Supernova. Enjoy this excerpt!

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"When people ask me to describe these songs, I think they're pretty shocked at how deep it is, they usually want me to talk about the strings and pedals . . . [laughs]"
— Joe Satriani, 2017

When I listen back now, Shockwave Supernova represents me pushing myself further than ever before on the guitar, but in ways where I think intensity, quantity of notes, difficulty of engineering, and speed are equally as challenging as showing restraint and attention to detail. For the musician, I do believe in the end that these tasks take the same amount of care and the same amount of hard work and finesse to pull off. Whenever I'm writing new music, I work from a total inside-the-body method. I'm fortunate that I get to play my guitar all the time, so there'll be moments where my fingers do something and I witness it and go, "Wow, that's cool!" However, most of the time I hear the music inside: I get a tingling, a feeling, the blood pressure goes up, and as thoughts race through my head, I hear notes. Sometimes it's chaotic and scattered, and other times it's perfectly formed, and I rush to an instrument and there it is, and I try to get my fingers to play what's just manifested itself inside of me. It's like a simultaneous explosion of my heart and mind.

I've got recordings of me playing and coming up with all sorts of clever things, and they always leave me cold because there's no reason for them other than that they're fun to play on guitar-I'm not going to discriminate against that and say it's bad [laughs]-but I will say that when it comes to putting together a bold album of strong songs, it's usually the case that those little bits don't go very far. If I listen to a song that started from inside of me, though, and I've struggled with my physicality to bring it out into the real world, that thing-that piece of creativity-has got legs, and people are going to be able to relate to it because it came from inside my heart and jumped off the fret board.

When I walk on the stage, I'm in such a creative state that I think a lot of stuff goes by me that I don't even notice. I'm so wrapped up in the performance and my own emotions that for parts of the show I'm in another world. There are parts of the show when I'm able to come back down to earth and see what's going on-I talk to the audience between songs, and there are songs where I enlist the audience during the performance, like "Crowd Chant." But my true impression is that it is a unique experience that has a lot to do with the fact that I'm a shy person; I'm not really cut out for show business, and yet I find myself on stage in front of thousands of people playing music that's extremely personal.

So there's a state I work myself into, which relates to the album Shockwave Supernova, like "How do I ever get the guts to walk on stage when every ber of my body says, 'Whatever you do, do not walk out on stage and play your song!'" I do it because there's this other part of me that takes over, and therein lies the partly made-up story of the album: Shockwave Supernova is the name that my supposed alter ego gave himself, and throughout the course of my career, he has reared his powerful personality and tried to take over, and wants to take over my body when I walk out on stage. I invented that guy to help me get over my stage fright, but I battle with him sometimes, too. Towards the end of the Unstoppable Momentum tour, for instance, I kept telling myself, "I should stop playing with my teeth so much," and we were playing in Singapore for the last show of the tour, and I remember telling myself as I was walking out on stage, "Tonight, just stand there and play, and don't do any of those silly guitar player things that you do when you get excited because you're having such a good time." Well, of course, after about two minutes I'm on my knees, playing guitar solos with my teeth, and after the show, I was thinking, "What happened to me? Who took over?" It was that other part of me, who might do just about anything to get a rise out of the audience.

For the next few days, I vacationed in Singapore with Rubina, and I was just thinking about the absurdity of touring and how a dedicated musician-especially a shy and retiring type like me- changes on stage. The longer the tour is, the more that other personality seems to hang out. It starts to rear its ugly head, so to speak, more and more, and I suddenly got inspired, and started to imagine a little science fiction comedy in my head: "Wouldn't it be funny if there was a movie about a guitar player whose alter ego really does take over, and there's a battle, and the audience watches this thing happen, this sort of grotesque struggle between these creative personalities locked in one performer's mind?" At that moment, it hit me, "What a cool concept for a record!" Shockwave Supernova was born.

Once I got back to the States and started working on demos, I decided John Cuniberti was the natural choice to co-produce this record with me because he'd known me so long leading up to it. We had been working together almost constantly up to that point, pulling together the box-set Chrome Dome project. He's an amazing engineer, very creative, and a really good collaborator. So I felt like the time was right to make an album together again.

There were a few instances when he would comment on a demo, "It's not finished, I'm looking for something more," and he'd never tell me what to do, but I think just knowing that he felt unfulfilled would get me excited. It was like a challenge from a friend, that I hadn't done all he thought I could for those songs, and I would run with it, and counted on that for the length of the project.

John Cuniberti: I'm spoiled with Joe [laughs], because I have grown so used to expecting nothing but greatness from him. I've never seen anybody command the electric guitar like that guy! Joe had done two records in a row without me since Black Swans and Wormhole Wizards-introducing other musicians and engineers/producers as your career moves along I think is absolutely essential, but our relationship had gotten reenergized by my working on the box set, where I went back and remastered everything. That ultimately led Joe to ask me to remix some of the orphans from the Unstoppable Momentum album, songs that never made it on to that record because he was unhappy with the way they had turned out. Of course, I always say "yes" to Joe, and sometimes we in the recording industry chase a mix for a long time until we either abandon it or actually find the magic. When he sent me the first three songs, I listened to Mike Fraser's mixes and kind of went back and forth, and felt that one of the issues was the way Vinnie played was not being exploited: he's highly detailed, and that really needed to be brought out, to become the thing that everything else was centered around.

When you're recording with guys like Vinnie Colaiuta, the size of a downbeat is so huge, it really is amazing. For some people, when they hear a metronome, a click is something they can hardly land on, it's a little dot in time. But for somebody like Vinnie, that click is a huge highway and he can fit inside of it in so many different ways, and click after click, he can play with it to the point where he creates what we call "the pocket." He can sit back on the beat for the verses, or, when the chorus is coming, he'll sit more right in the middle of the beat, and you'll feel like there's more energy happening in the chorus. I've witnessed him do it, and when you look at his performance in Pro Tools, you can see it-it's just such a high level of artistry. It's amazing.

Vinnie Colaiuta: It's hard for me to conceptualize how I'll fit into a picture in someone else's eyes, and when Joe called me, I was thinking "Wow, this is great!" Whatever musical situation I'm in, I always look at the parameters, and I have to sort of hear how much room there is for me to do whatever it is I'm gonna do without stepping on anything else. So if the music is metrically oriented in a way where its real part-oriented for me, I have to honor that, it has to be kind of exact, but Joe didn't impose anything on me.

When I grew up, I didn't delineate music maybe the way some people have, because I grew up listening to everything, so it was all music to me, but really understanding simple time and space, and just a much deeper, subtle concept behind and inside of all that, came from years of being a session player. Then doing things within these parameters with taste just comes from whatever level of musical development you're at, and getting inside the music and looking at it from a bigger perspective. There are nuanced time feels and things like that, a whole universe just inside of playing time, and it can reflect a lot . . . you can say a lot just with that.

(( end of excerpt — continued in book ))

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