Planet Joe

by Beth Winegarner

Joe Satriani's music probably reveals more about his personality than the guitarist realizes. To onlookers he's a bit of a blur, all fingers and flash; between constant touring and songwriting, this axeman enjoys very little downtime. His ninth studio record, "Crystal Planet," hit stores March 3 and marks his debut on Epic records.

Even from the eye of the whirlwind things are a bit dizzying. When we spoke, Satriani was recovering from a promotional tour of Europe. "We figured it out, it was 73 interviews and three performances in nine different countries over 13 days," he says from his home near the Presidio.

But the push for "Crystal Planet" is only beginning. The album is an upbeat, energetic work full of trademark Satch tricks and the occasional tender interlude. Satriani says the process of making this record was quite different from that of earlier works. "I wanted to make a record that was completely inclusive of everything I had ever done before," he says. "I happened upon this phrase 'crystal planet,' and I thought it might work as a metaphor for me to create a record that would be like my own world where I could play anything I wanted to play."

The result is a collection of songs bordering on ecstatic, from the expansive title track to more ethereal numbers like "Z.Z.'s Song." The guitarist is quick to point out, "Each of the titles have very specific origins," although they're not what listeners might expect. "A couple of songs got their start with native american music," he explains. "As an American-Italian growing up on Long Island, I'm about as far away from [that music] as you can imagine, but when you find something that relates to you in a way that you can't explain it is undeniable."

"For instance, 'Up In the Sky' was about the idea of transforming your body into that of an animal, in this case an eagle, and taking flight. With 'Ceremony' it was about a sort of a fantasy-daydream about a celebration ... perhaps at midnight, in the middle of a beautiful open prarie or an incredible valley, something where the celebration of the Earth is so obvious because it's so beautiful as it surrounds you."

"House Full of Bullets," a bluesy rocker, is less spiritually minded, Satriani says. "I figure if Martin Scorsese shot a video for me and he put me in this house with my chrome guitar and the house is being torn to shreds by bullets... and I'm just deflecting [them]. The camera slowly pans outside and you see who's causing all this mayhem out there. Basically it's all the critics and reviewers and musicians who don't quite understand why I like making records like this," he says, laughing.

The personable Satriani has always had a touchy relationship with the media. "I can remember being interviewed endlessly in heavy metal magazines and feeling a little out of place. I always wanted to ask the reviewer, 'Have you actually seen me play live? Have you listened to the record?' But I would get that from jazz radio stations, who would say, 'You're really a jazz artist, why are you playing this heavy rock stuff?' They would like me to make up my mind, and that's not obviously what I would ever do," he says.

Satriani's pet project, the annual G3 tour, is a testament to that. In the past he's toured with such varied musicians as Steve Vai, Kenny Wayne Shepard and Robert Fripp. This year, Satriani plans to combine G3 with a tour in support of "Crystal Planet," which kicks off May 14 in Dublin,Ireland. "We're going to have with us Michael Schenker and Uli Jon Roth, both former guitarists ofthe Scorpions," he says. "They're both from another outside musical influence that I really don't occupy. It's all in keeping with the spirit of [G3] -- it doesn't matter what kind of music you play. As long as you do it well on your guitar, you're invited."

Meanwhile, Satriani is taking a brief solo tour across the country, and will broadcasting some shows live on the Web while acqainting himself with the staff of his new record company. Satch's old label, Relativity, was forced to jettison most of its talent under less-than-rosy circumstances.

"That was one of those huge memos... that said, 'As a subsidiary of Sony music you are now a rap label, and are hereby ordered to cut loose the rest of your acts.' The memo that followed was from Epic, a larger subsidiary of Sony, that said 'We're very happy that we've got a chance to invite Joe Satriani to come over to our label,'" he says with a laugh.

Like everything else in his life, Satriani is taking the changes in stride. Critics may say what they will, but Satriani reflects on some advice given to him by Glynn Johns. "He said, 'Your job is to make the music, not to judge it, and not to try to decide what people will like. That's their job. You just play it.' It was kind of a liberating moment to really accept that."

This article was originally published in BAM magazine.