Lovers Lane
Copernicus Center

Joe Satriani interview

| March 31, 2008

Joe Satriani
Surfing With The Web Surfers


Valentine’s Day was four days ago, but guitar instrumentalist Joe Satriani is just now writing his dearest a love note. He begins reciting it by phone from his small, professional recording studio on the ground floor of his San Francisco home. “Record Store Day,” he reads aloud, “April 19th, 2008.” The virtuoso is breaking out the sweet stuff for the one he credits with selling 10 million of his studio albums through his 22 years as a solo recording artist: the record-store industry, now hobbled by illegal file sharing and an iTunes-designed singles market.

“There is a movement to try to raise awareness about how local record stores need support and how much they mean,” he says, promoting the day in which hundreds of music shops across the country will rally their businesses with special events and giveaways. “Commerce and art do actually work hand in hand. And if that commerce starts to fall apart, it leads right back to the artist.” He describes a “complicated but vital chain” of revenue linking music collectors to musicians. It’s a weakening chain, he cautions. Record stores number fewer and fewer each year.

From the seismic rattling of the brick-and-mortar stores to a February report from market research firm NPD stating 48 percent of U.S. teenagers bought no CDs in 2007 (part of a net decline not offset by an increase in paid downloads), you might think the 51-year-old guitarist — the quintessential album rocker — is shaking in his red sneakers. But if you catch him at 9 a.m. in the calm of his downstairs hideaway (“Studio 21” in liner notes), you’d immediately think otherwise. The early riser unleashes paragraphs of morning-coffee eloquence in response to bleary-eyed questions, cleverly finding ways to turn music-industry grief into optimism and glee. Fans don’t call him “Saint Joe” for nothing.

“Thank God there’s always this upside that we see from these cataclysmic shifts in the industry,” he says with an unshakable New York accent, “and I think all of us — myself and every artist out there — has benefited from the You Tube phenomenon.” In support of his 13th studio album, Professor Satchifunkilus And The Musterion Of Rock (Sony BMG), he begins a year of touring this month that will stretch from Europe to Asia, with a North American leg this fall. He credits the same digital shift that is leveling his beloved stores with his rising international popularity. “I’m one of those artists that benefited greatly from the ‘Net, because now we can go to Calcutta and we can return to Scandinavia. We can play from Santiago to Quebec City, and everybody is familiar with the material. And that never would have happened with an artist like me if we were simply working off of the independent record store or even the strong international chain.”

Satriani’s balancing of record-store reverence with digital realism carries over to his feelings about Surfing With The Alien, his soaring 1987 breakthrough, which was digitally remastered and reissued on the LP’s 20th anniversary last year. Record stores and Surfing aren’t exactly indicative of where his music is today, but they have much to do with those 10 million sales and his 15 Grammy nominations. Just this year, Satriani was nominated for Best Rock Instrumental Performance with his Satriani Live! version of “Always With Me, Always With You,” a ballad that first appeared on Surfing. (It lost to Bruce Springsteen’s “Once Upon A Time In The West,” continuing the virtuoso’s winless streak.)

As much as technology has progressed, Satriani couldn’t forget the trials and tribulations of recording analog albums such as Surfing, even if he wanted to. “There were lots of problems,” he says. “Some of them created some really nice and charismatic recordings.” The era of file sharing and iTunes has also brought with it software such as Pro Tools, allowing musicians to cheaply record and mix music directly on ordinary computers. Satriani has laid down guitars, bass, and keyboards at home for his last three albums, venturing out of Studio 21 to record live drums and percussion.

Before digital, there was the finite, fragile, and imprecise world of analog, which makes even the simplest edit in Pro Tools look mythic by comparison. As fellow Long Island native Billy Joel once sang, “The good ol’ days weren’t always good/And tomorrow ain’t as bad as it seems.” Satriani seems to agree. “Here’s a typical story,” he begins, his voice adopting the educational tone of a guitar instructor, his first career in music. “When we finished mixing Surfing With The Alien and we went down to Los Angeles to Bernie Grundman’s for mastering, he commented to me that for some reason the record was left-heavy and that there seemed to be a three- or four-dB discrepancy between the left and the right channel. I was just mortified and heartbroken that something like that could have even happened. And I said: ‘This is probably the last record anyone will ever allow me to make. I’m not going to allow anything like this to happen.'”

Mike Meyer

For more on Satch’s love of stores, find the April issue of Illinois Entertainer, available free throughout Chicagoland.

Category: Features, Monthly

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