One way of looking at Joe Satriani’s 15th studio album, Shockwave Supernova, is that it’s a concept record—and indeed, the disc does follow a loose narrative that the guitar superstar dreamed up concerning the spiritual death and rebirth of an outlandish and extroverted alter ego for Satch named, appropriately enough, Shockwave Supernova.
Another way would be to call the 15 songs that comprise the disc “inspired by,” which is how Satriani actually prefers it.
“Nothing against Tommy and a few other records, but I’ve never been a big fan of straight-up concept records,” he says. “The real idea for this was more functional; to allow me to make creative decisions song by song, establishing moods and feelings. So, in that way, it’s very elastic and free-form, although there is an overall tone of renewal and awakening, and a bit of a story if you want to follow it.”
Sessions for Shockwave Supernova took place at Satriani’s home away from home for the past few years, Skywalker Sound in Lucas Valley, California, where the guitarist and his longtime co-producer/engineer, John Cuniberti, hunkered down with keyboardist-guitarist Mike Keneally, bassist Bryan Beller and drummer Marco Minnemann.
“It’s hard to ask for a better, more responsive and creative group than that,” Satriani marvels, “although the guys I worked with on the last album were pretty great. And hey, you get to hear them, too.”
Satch is referring to the inclusion of four tracks—“Keep on Movin’,” “In My Pocket,” “Crazy Joey” and “Scarborough Stomp”—held over from his previous album, Unstoppable Momentum, that feature the rhythm section of drummer Vinnie Colauita and bassist Chris Chaney. “Those tracks weren’t fleshed out at the time, so I put them away,” Satriani explains. “When I started this record, they still spoke to me, and they made sense musically and thematically with the new batch of songs, so I brought them back and finished them off.”
Shockwave Supernova sees Satch offering his idiosyncratic take on swing, samba and blues shuffles while refining his blockbuster approach to pile-driving instrumental guitar rock. Interestingly, amid the widescreen riffs and solos, Satriani employs a more naturalistic guitar tone than ever before, and when set against the lofty, sci-fi conceit of the album, a deeply humanistic message emerges.
“On past records I went out of my way to really trip out the guitar,” he says, “but I think by playing things a little straighter, it reaches people easier. They can connect to the moods in a more personal way because the sounds are more direct. Some people have said that this is my best-sounding album. That’s always the goal, of course, but it’s nice to think that you’ve hit the mark.”
Satriani sat down with Guitar World recently to walk through the entire record track-by-track.
“Upon returning from South America, I was doing a series of songs that had a bit of a Latin vibe to them. I did a demo of this song and sent it to John Cuniberti, and he said, ‘I really love it, but the verse could be a bit more emotive.’ I listened to it and said, ‘Yeah. He’s probably right.’
“I tried a couple of different things, and then I tried a contrary experiment, which was, ‘What if instead of everybody playing and continuing, they just stopped and I played something in an entirely different key?’ It's a great exercise. The melody lines were recorded over many different days where I had a lot of different guitars. It would go from six-string to 12-string to some other 12-string all on one track. It was pretty undisciplined.
“I was searching for something, something undefined and unknown. I was trying to push my own buttons with it. It can be frustrating to work like that—‘What is it? What am I looking for?’ But when you get it, it’s really joyous.”
“Lost in a Memory”
“I started writing this song in late ’87 or early ’88. I jammed on it with [drummer] Jonathan Mover and [bassist] Stu Hamm, but it didn't have the melody; it was only an improv construction. I’ve always loved the track because it had these two-chord progressions. The idea of getting an enormous payoff from the fewest number of chords was appealing to me."
“Right before the Unstoppable record, I brought it back and I came up with the whole melody. I was very excited, but it still wasn’t happening. I thought, Maybe it’s in the mix.’ We mixed it, but I remember looking at [producer/engineer] Mike Fraser and saying, ‘We did everything we could, but it’s not ready.’ It had only been 30 years. [laughs]
“Most people would just toss it, but I took it home and played the “turn off the tracks” game. I started turning stuff off and I listened to what was good. Finally, I said, ‘You know, you told Chris and Vinnie to play those beats from the late Eighties. Maybe that's the problem.’ I just sort of re-did the drums and the bass, created the demo, which was basically the album tracks from Unstoppable minus Vinnie and Chris, and then I added some programmed drums and some of my bass as an example.
“Then I showed it to the guys and I said, ‘Something like this.’ Since Mike Keneally and I had already done all of our parts that day, it was really just Marco and Bryan coming up with this new groove. And I was so happy to hear it. I realized, like, Why didn't I think about that 30 years ago? That was just one of those funny things.”
“'Crazy Joey' is about a crazy guy with a lot of swagger walking down the street—he’s got his playful, guitar slinger-like chops, that kind of thing. I thought this was perfect because it shows one side of Shockwave, all of this positive energy. It's in a major key, so it’s upbeat, and he's playing these ridiculous hammer-on/pull-off arpeggios.
“It has an absolutely insane performance from Vinnie—just crazy. I recorded the whole thing at home and brought it to him. I had chopped up this wild drum performance from a Brain DVD and put it at the beginning of the song, like, ‘Here, what do you think of this?’ Vinnie came up with his own thing, a whole other vibe, but it was based on the Brain DVD stuff. It was one of those times where somebody pours some different creative thoughts into something and it puts the biggest smile on your face.
“In My Pocket”
“There were two personalities on this. The first was the melody in which I imagined myself being part of a three-piece horn section. I thought, If I’m a guitar player, I’m not going to be doing all of these guitar-y kinds of things. That helped me eliminate techniques, so I could focus on getting the melody to work."
“The solo is the total opposite of that. It’s the kind of solo that you would imagine somebody in front of an audience playing. It starts with a crazy high note that’s impossible to get, and then it goes to a lot of flash. You can picture me just pointing to the audience and having a blast. And I was—only I was pointing to Vinnie, Chris and Mike. It’s me overplaying and having fun.”
“On Peregrine Wings”
“In the beginning, it’s as if you had wings and you stepped off a precipice—things would be wobbly, right? So when those first couple of chords come in, it’s like, ‘Whoa…’ The beat takes off and it's like you’re gliding, and man, the song gets really fast. I mean, that was so much fun to do—it's just crazy. It was very difficult to keep in tune, though. I did it a million times. It's way up there on the fretboard, and I’m playing the last two strings that aren't too reliable past the ninth fret in terms of intonation. It's a song that's got a lot of reckless abandon."
“The amp on the solo is one of my old Marshall Super Leads from when I was in the Squares. It was stolen but I managed to get it back years later. It had been painted orange, but it was mine. I had it worked on, and it sounded just like it used to. The thing is all over the record, actually. You plug into it and it just growls and makes all of these cool noises. You get such amazing feedback with it. It’s like it just talks to you.”
“A song about facing everything going wrong. Like in those CGI films where a character turns around and sees a thousand-foot-high dust storm approaching—it’s coming and there’s nowhere to run.
“I built this one and thought about how some early metal was, quite funky, like Black Sabbath and Deep Purple. It was loose and grungy. I played bass on this one with that kind of swinging attitude. I showed it to the guys and said, ‘You’re younger and you grew up playing very intense metal. I know you’re thinking that's what I want, but I'm actually looking for something a bit stranger.’ So we kept my bass track."
“I think Mike Keneally wound up adding a really cool sweeping thing on top with some synth, and Marco gave us a very unusual drumbeat with a riff. If there’s such a thing as ‘exotic metal,’ that's what he gave us that afternoon.”
“San Francisco Blue”
“There are so many kinds of shuffles. Some move around, others are more metronomic, and then there are levels of swing. The melody here is stretched out, so we reined in the swing a bit, which kept the song tight and moving forward."
“In the demo stage, I played with different swing loops to find the level that was right. When Marco heard it, he lined right up with it. And I should point out that Marco is famous for his opposition to playing shuffles. He laughed when I brought this in—‘Oh, no, a shuffle!’—but he gave me six different versions that were all great.”
“Keep On Moving”
“The melodies are very blues oriented, but the wah-wah solo is very jazzy, almost as if a jazz horn player picked up a guitar and could instantly play. It’s got a Sixties tenor sax approach."
“I brought the song in and John Cuniberti asked me, ‘What’s going on in the middle part?’ I said, ‘What do you mean?’ And he said, ‘It’s like nothing is happening, at least not for me.’ [laughs] I went back and realized he was right. Mike and I were busy playing, but it was all kind of background stuff. It was interesting to us because we played it, but it wasn’t interesting to anybody else."
“John sent me a stereo mix, and I added those bluesy, in-your-face solos for the middle. They worked out beautifully, really straddling the positive/negative vibe of the song. The song needed some more powerful stuff to balance the jazzy wah-wah solo. I couldn’t hear it at first, but John could.”
“All of My Life”
“I was making Chickenfoot demos, and this one started as an attempt to show Sammy Hagar in a different light. I underplayed as much as I could so that Sammy would feel comfortable singing without a lot of overbearing guitar. When it looked like that record wasn’t going to happen, I moved the file into my ‘new record’ batch."
“I found that I loved this subdued Joe Satriani sound; it was like there was nothing on it. It was very un-Shockwave-like—you know, ‘He would never play like that.’ I tried to make the song achieve new heights by omission. It’s very laid back in the technical department. There’s no real bridge, either. I love it. It’s a simple, single-coil blues sound that does what it needs to do.”
“A Phase I’m Going Through”
“John Cuniberti was working on mixes, and he put the guitar track through a phaser. It immediately reminded me of what we did in the early Eighties. Back then, your only choices besides recording everything straight-up were to use reverb, delay or a phaser."
“Sometimes you really regret putting a phaser on a track, but I thought, I’m going to embrace the phaser. In fact, I’m going to call the song “A Phase I'm Going Through,” just to prove a point.’ I leaned on the sound and used it as a way of explaining a changing of sorts. You notice that you're doing something weird, out of your normal personality, but you're explaining it to yourself by saying, ‘Hey, it's just a phase I'm going through.’ ”
“It's called ‘Scarborough Stomp’ because of the fact that it's a Dorian mode—people originally thought it had origins in the town of Scarborough, in the U.K. I’ve always loved this kind of beat. We used to try to write a ton of things like this in the Squares. This one came together during a writing session where I was plugged into an AdrenaLinn III foot pedal controller, and I was recording these little song bits. I’d write a song for a minute and a half, and then another one and another one."
“I wrote this piece of music and thought it was good, but when I re-recorded it there was something missing—the playfulness. We tried doing the guitars fresh. We created a template where the rhythm guitars were copied and pasted in certain sequences to give us the feel, and we eventually wound up with a really slamming-sounding track from the rhythm section. Ultimately, though, I thought we straightened out too much—that can happen."
“I threw it back to John Cuniberti, who is just so good at pulling faders and rebuilding tracks. He created a stereo performance of the original rhythm guitar and allowed it to play more liberally throughout. By doing that, we were able to keep all the guitars I did at home, and then we were able to use Vinnie, Chris and this crazy harpsichord thing, too.”
"Butterfly and Zebra"
“This is a song about two lovers realizing that even though they’re experiencing profound love, they’re simply too different for it to ever work. I focused on these two creatures that I thought couldn’t be more different, a butterfly and a zebra. They’re analogies, you know, for two people who fall in love but shouldn't, but even just that few seconds of a connection might be enough."
“That’s a Sustainiac and the JS2400. I generally like to record DI at home, and then we re-amp almost everything. I’m using a Sansamp here. Every once in a while, the Sansamp has a way of dealing with dynamics that's quite unique and different from a vintage Fender or a modern Marshall head. Sometimes that’s what a song calls for, as it was here.”
“If There Is No Heaven”
“I think at some point people all say or think, ‘All this stuff that’s going on doesn’t matter, because someday I'll die and I'll be in a better place.’ For Shockwave, he’s dissolving; he’s going through a metamorphosis. He’s saying, ‘What if there is nothing after this?’"
“Somebody loaned me a 1959 Chet Atkins guitar, and I was plugged into a Two Rock amp, one that was made especially for me. We were out in the studio room—[amp repair expert] Gary Brawer, John Cuniberti and myself—and we're just listening and saying, ‘That sounds really beautiful. Let’s record this right now."
“I just played the chords without any time, and I explained to the guys, ‘This song is about a guy going into the light, except when he gets out there, there's nothing.’ John asked me to go out and make some other noises, and then he fooled around with it and added some pink noise to illustrate what it might feel like way out there in the middle of nowhere, being confronted with nothingness, like, ‘What's the sound of nothing?’ ”
“Stars Race Across the Sky”
“The repetition of the arpeggios, to me, was key in representing the feelings that are on opposite sides of the heart. One is ‘I’m stuck. I’m standing still.’ The other is ‘Life is moving so fast. How can I get my feet on the ground?’ Instead of having arpeggiated chords that move together as a group, I decided to come up with a tuning in which three strings would be fretted and the others would be open, but they would work with all of the chords in the song."
“Sometimes there’s beauty in that and it’s very calming, and at other times it’s tense because of the dissonance. It’s such a noisy affair to try to get an acoustic guitar with that tuning to display proper intonation. I gave the part to Mike Keneally, who had the thankless task of playing the arpeggios through the entire song. His level of Zen concentration was pretty brilliant.”
“This is really where he's saying goodbye. When I came up with it, I was envisioning something much more melodramatic. To get myself to not play certain things but to play certain other things, I envisioned myself telling everybody, ‘I'm out of here. This is my last statement. You can all go to Hell.’ Then I thought, Oh, you shouldn’t be negative. It should be a celebration.’ But each time I would work on the song I would jump into whatever mood would come to my mind. If it was anger or spite or feeling revelatory, or if it was pure joy or something, I would just run with it."
“The song announces itself with how it's going to be ending, but then it quickly changes key and goes minor when the orchestra comes in with those arpeggios, because Shockwave's got some shit to say, right? Those blues verses are all about venting, of finally getting it off his chest, all that was troubling him in his life."
“A very weird guitar comes in, so that’s rebirth. Then the piece rides out on this beautiful solo. You know me—I'm not afraid of a major scale. As I’ve said before, no scale is more important than the other. In this particular case, the major scale is really working better.”