Joe Satriani Talks "Chickenfoot III", Challenging Himself, "Inception", and What "Crystal Planet" Means to Him Now
Thu, 22 Sep 2011 10:07:51
Chickenfoot have stepped up their game once more on Chickenfoot III.
Given the band members' respective pedigrees, that's saying a lot. This is of course the super group featuring guitar god Joe Satriani, Red Hot Chili Peppers' drum maestro Chad Smith, and Sammy Hagar and Michael Anthony of Van Halen fame.
Chickenfoot III brings together these four immense talents in one swirling and swaggering rock 'n' roll epic. Whether it's a whiskey soaked Southern groove on "Last Temptation" or pensive space jamming during the elegantly ethereal "Different Devil", Chickenfoot light a fire under rock 'n' roll's collective ass, setting the pace for the genre as a whole. Chickenfoot III melds monstrous grooves and virtuoso playing in one of the year's best rock records.
In order to prime the world for the album's release on September 27, Joe Satriani sat down with ARTISTdirect.com editor and Dolor author Rick Florino for this exclusive interview about Chickenfoot III, Inception, and a look back on Crystal Planet.
Do you feel like Chickenfoot is more of a proper band on Chickenfoot III? Did everything click more seamlessly than it did the first time around?
Definitely! When I think back to that first album we did, we barely knew each other. We would get together for two or three days, record some songs, and say goodbye. We wouldn't see each other for a few months. Then, we'd repeat the process. It took a year of that to compile a record. This time around, it was a little bit more normal. We had a history with each other now. We'd done a few tours. We'd learned about each other a little more. Certainly as I was writing demos for the record, I thought, "Now, I've got experience playing with Mike and Chad. I know the kind of rhythm section they are. I'm going to write music that really brings out more power and finesse knowing what they can do." I spent so many more hours with Sam writing, and I realized there are great things he does that no one has heard before. I wanted to write songs that brought that side of him out too. It feels like we knew each other more, and we were able to bring better performances out of each other.
What's the story behind "Different Devil"?
That song is so funny. The last bunch of demos I brought to the band were just on acoustic guitar. They were kind of light. "Different Devil" was probably a little underwritten because I didn't know if they would go for something like it. I thought it would be a quirky, artistic song. I was surprised when the rest of the band took to it. When they started playing it, they made it sound more commercial or accessible. I remember thinking, "This is not going where I want it to go". I really did want it to be an odd song.
Where did it go from there?
Chad was really excited about it, so he took my guitar back to the hotel after the first day of recording. He shows up to record the next morning and says, "I've written another part to the song. Let's try it out". It turned out to be really good, and Sam was like, "I bet I can sing a chorus over that part". We re-cut the song. We had to edit Chad's part down to about 50 percent of its original length, but it actually functioned really well. After a while, I started to see the light on this particular song. The guys are always making fun of me because anytime a song looks like it has commercial appeal, I'm always running the other direction [Laughs]. They say, "No, no, accessibility is good, Joe!" The band leaves, and I listen back to it. It's got scratch vocals and all of the stuff on it. I realize that Sam is singing a melody over the chorus that doesn't actually work with the chords we're playing which was the chorus that Chad had written.
Did you switch the chords?
Since everyone was gone and we had these great performances, I had to come up with some method of making it work. As I was listening to the vocals, I started to imagine the chords he thought he was singing over. Then I had to see if somewhere in the recording we played those chords. I found them. I had to sort of borrow the chords and past them in order to work with the vocals. Once I did that, I emailed it around to everyone. They all loved it, so we went in and added all the other guitar parts. Mike and Chad liked it so much they re-did the drums and the bass. During that session, I added another guitar and Sam did the vocals. It's the strangest way of recording a song. It started from a little acoustic demo and went through all of these trials and tribulations. It arrives at a spot that puts a smile on everybody's face. We're all proud of it just a little embarrassed at how strangely it was written and recorded [Laughs].
Your riffs and leads really entwine with Sammy's vocals. Do you feel like you two have a special interplay?
It was something that I was specifically trying to achieve on the record. I'm happy that you noticed it. I don't like when I hear other kinds of music and there seems to be a disconnect between the vocals and what the band is playing—even if the songs are ultimately good. It gives you the impression that someone simply wrote a track and didn't think of what the song is about and somebody came in later and sang whatever they wanted to sing without thinking of the instrumentation. A lot of pop music is like that because of the nature of how it gets put together, who writes it, and who sings it. Chickenfoot is a band. We write and record all together. All of the recordings are done without click tracks or sequences. We're basically making live recordings and overdubbing on top of that. Chickenfoot is an organic thing, and it's so important we make that a hallmark of the recordings. That chemistry is always a part of what people hear. As I was writing for this second record, I wanted to take advantage of that as much as I could and write things that make me meld into the drums and bass and be part of a bigger unit rather than just play big guitar riffs and tell the guys to play a straight rhythm behind me. I never wanted to do that! I thought Sam and I should get together on our parts so sometimes we're singing and playing the same thing. It's all in the effort to make a big unified sound.
I think Jimmy Page in Led Zeppelin was really good at that. Jimi Hendrix was as well. He brought his vocal lines, melody, and rhythm playing together on those early recordings. That added a very unique quality to that music. They didn't know they were creating classic rock, but that's what they were doing [Laughs]. It's something which comes natural to everybody in the band.
If you were to compare Chickenfoot III to a movie or a combination of movies, what would you compare it to?
Wow! Well, I'm guessing the imagery that goes through my mind is just as crazy as what's going through everybody else's mind. To me, every song is cathartic. It's almost too intense to transfer to film. It'd be too crazy. You know how crazy Chad and Sam are [Laughs]. I'm not too sure about Mike. He's a little more reserved. I don't know if I'd want to see a movie reflecting what's going through Chad's head [Laughs]. It's probably crazier than mine!
It's funny. I'll tell you a movie that grew on me. I always loved Inception, but every time I see it again it's more intense because of the levels of reality. It deals with the human experience and how deep the layers upon layers of our inner lives are. That's what Inception is really about. Those deep, dark, and twisted levels affect the reality we all walk around in. Making a record is a very much like that. When you're dealing with songs that you want to open your heart to people about, it's a cathartic process. You've got to peal out layers. You may not eventually put that stuff on the recording consciously, but maybe in a few weeks when you sit back and listen to what you've done, you realize you've been baring your heart to the world in ways you'd never planned. This record was very much like that. It wasn't only because we wanted to make a great record, but we were also dealing with the loss of John Carter. He was Sam's personal manager and one of Chickenfoot's two managers. He got diagnosed with cancer as we started the record, and then in a few months before the record was finished, he passed away. It was a very intense to deal with while making the record. We can feel it when we hear the record now that we've stepped away from it.
What do you think about when you look back on Crystal Planet?
It's interesting you should ask that because we have been playing the title track on tour since we started the Wormhole WizardsTour back in October. That wound up back in the set because it's a great song to have on keyboards. Crystal Planet was an important record for me because of the intensity of composing. There were all of these little musical things I put in there. I'll tell you a funny thing about that. It was the only record where I wrote specifically in certain keys and eventually sequenced the whole album so each song would start ascending. When you go all the way from the first track to the end and start again, you're always moving up in keys. There are lots of little parameters like that on the record that I don't think anybody noticed, but they were part of the album's musical design.
Where did "Something Going Wrong" come from?
That was another song that came towards the end. It was an acoustic demo that I'd sent around to the guys before we met up in the studio. It was recorded so quickly. Sam came running into the studio and said, "I love this song! Let's record this right now!" I hadn't really worked things out about which instrument I'd be playing on the song. I just recorded it on a six-string acoustic leading into my laptop on the demo. We found an old 12-string around the studio that we could tune up well enough. We quickly discussed an arrangement and in a half an hour, the song was recorded. Over the next couple days, I added a banjo, a six-string, and the Strat-y solo in the middle. By the time the vocals got on there, we were so pleased with how it turned out. It's a very personal song for Sam. It was exactly what I was talking about when I mentioned I was trying to get Sam to sing more intimately and in a low register. "Something Going Wrong" really does bring out those qualities in his voice. I think it will bring the fans closer to who Sam really is, which is very important.
Watch the video for "Three And A Half Letters (I Need a Job).
Watch our most recent interview with Chad Smith here!