Last month, Joe Satriani decided to postpone his European tour due to the COVID-19 pandemic. “I was pretty adamant about getting the ball rolling early,” he tells Rolling Stone from his home in San Francisco. “Because it was obvious. Some folks, maybe they were just frightened and didn’t want to see the reality that’s upon us right now.”
Amid the crisis, the guitarist released his 18th studio album, Shapeshifting, on April 10th, featuring the lead single “Nineteen Eighty,” which explores his earliest days in music and the inspiration of Van Halen.
“What a crazy time to release an album of music, but that’s my job in this situation,” he says. “I’m not a doctor or a nurse. But I am a musician, and I know what I’m supposed to be doing, which is making music for people. So I’ll just keep working it.”
The guitarist spoke to Rolling Stone about postponing his tour, his new album, and why he’ll never livestream a performance from home.
How are you handling all of this?
I’m fortunate to live in a beautiful city and I enjoy being home. When I’m not on tour around the world, I’m at home writing and recording music. So, I’m forced into doing that right now. I was supposed to be out touring the world, but now I’m back to the home life. But I’m counting my blessings. I’m healthy and I got a place to live and got stuff to eat. Got a bunch of guitars to play, so it’s not too bad.
Can you walk me through the postponement of your tour?
That started quite early. I just knew that things were going to start shutting down before the countries in Europe were facing up to what was happening. So my managers and I just started the ball rolling, saying, “We’re going to have to postpone these dates because there’s no way to ensure the safety of the band, the crew, and the fans.”
It’s a really difficult subject to talk about because the relationship between foreign governments, their business community, the venue owners, and promoters is complicated. You just shout across the pond, “Hey, I’m canceling because we think there’s a problem.” They just kind of shout back and say, “No, there isn’t. If you don’t come, then you owe us.” And unless the government says, “You’ve got to shut down for the good of public health,” they just figure it’s business as usual. And it seems like it behooves every spoke in the wheel to point the finger at somebody else.
So all artists — whether they’re a theater company or they’re a singer-songwriter showing up to play in a small club — they face the same problem. There’s a protocol for backing out of a show or tour. And so anyway, that’s on the sidelines. That’s what people saw. They saw confusion, statements about postponement, hardly the word cancellation.
It didn’t bother me so much because musicians, we wait all the time. As a matter of fact, most of the time we’re waiting. We are like masters of hanging out, waiting for that one hour or two hours, if we’re lucky to play. So the thought of postponing shows for several months or years, I thought, “Well, we do that all the time anyway, what’s the big deal?”
I suppose there’s a ton of business to deal with, though.
The business is going to have to figure some stuff out. It always does. So I’m not worried about that. It’s gonna be really difficult for a lot of people — concertwise, music-businesswise. But that really takes second place to the health of everybody. So everyone just has to get that straight in their minds. We have to stay alive and not get sick, and then we can do with the other stuff. We’re clever enough to deal with the business stuff.
I mean, if there’s like a tsunami, they call it a force majeure, it’s an act of God or whatever. Everyone throws up their hands and says, “OK, it’s nobody’s fault. No one can sue each other.” But if there’s a chance that somebody could sue somebody else, they probably will. I can tell you from personal experience that the promoters that I’ve worked with for 30-plus years all have taken big chances on booking tours for me in their countries. I’m an instrumental rock guitarist [laughs]. They put up the money, they take the risk. The promoter has employees, the venue has employees. Ticket holders and fans have to be respected from each person’s perspective.
I often think, my parents were born into the last century. The Spanish flu era. And they arrived and survived the Great Depression, World War II, Korean War, Vietnam War, social upheaval, assassinations, AIDS. And during all of it, they showed remarkable courage and drive and raised five kids and loved us unconditionally, kept us clothed and fed and educated. So we should be acting the same way.
Yeah, definitely. And you’re Italian American, correct?
Yes, that’s right.
You have relatives in Milan?
In and around Milan and Como. They’ve been in lockdown way before us. So we were in communication with them every week. So I raised the flag really early with all of my partners internationally to say, “This is what’s coming. Believe me, it’s coming.”
You still have shows scheduled this summer. Are you just holding off for now?
We’ve been instructed to let people know which shows were postponed and rebooked for 12 months from now. And we’re waiting for confirmation on everything else. Me and all my friends all had tours spread out over the next six months. Everyone’s in the same situation.
Tell me about how Shapeshifting came together.
I started writing a little over a year ago, upon returning from the last show we did for What Happens Next, which was in Pune, India. And I got back home and started to dream up what I wanted to do, and it came upon me that I didn’t want to stop myself from writing in a lot of different styles and genres. So I kept it going. And then slowly, I got the idea that I should embrace a contrarian approach.
Whereas instead of saying, “This album’s gonna be this kind of an album,” and then make every song and playing technique support this one focused direction, I thought, “What if I did the opposite? What if I let all the songs be different and I made me the agent of change? I would be the one who would stylistically change my shape.”
And then I came up with the song as a sort of a theme song for myself, and then it wound up being the title track of the album. It all fell together in an organic way. I was licking my wounds from a touring season and just relaxing at home and sort of writing free-form.
How did you assemble your band?
The interesting sort of element that was thrown into the mix was that last year I did two tours with the Experience Hendrix troupe. So I was out there with Doug Pinnick on bass and Kenny Aronoff on drums. And it was just this great 30 minutes of wild Hendrix explosion every night. It was so much fun not to be playing music from your own record or something you had to sell. We were playing in front of an audience that knew every song and had known it for almost 60 years. It was so liberating.
And then Kenny was just exploding on the drums every night. We had toured together many years ago, when he filled in for Chad Smith in Chickenfoot, so we had played together before. But I found that what he was doing every night really showed me that he would be the right person to grasp this concept that I had for the album.
So halfway through that year, I invited him to be part of the project, and then thought about finding somebody else that I thought would love being really pliable in the studio, and Chris Chaney came to mind, because we had done a record a few years ago called Unstoppable Momentum. He’s just an amazing human being, great musician. Wonderful to hang out with in a music room and trade musical surprises. He always adds great music and positive vibes to the situation.
So the three of us clicked, and just by accident, I wound up reaching out to producer and engineer Jim Scott, because Kenny had done a session there right before we were heading out on another Hendrix run. I called him just to see if he would be interested in making an instrumental album that was going to be extremely eclectic.
“Nineteen Eighty” was inspired by Van Halen. How did that come about?
It’s an interesting little window into my memory of the period. I’ve been a guitar player since I was 14 years old and influenced primarily by Hendrix. So, by the time I get to the late Seventies and finished touring with a disco band through the U.S., I’m a little discontented and disillusioned by the music business as a young musician. I come out here to California to hang out with my older sisters, I spent some time in Japan, I come back to Berkeley, California, and I’m thinking, “I just need to get rid of everything that I was as a musician and do something different.”
And so I started this band — we were either called the Squares or Squares. I’m not sure we ever decided what we were called. But three guys who really shouldn’t have belonged together wound up being a band together. Jeff Capitelli, amazing drummer, he had just graduated high school. A new friend, Andy Milton, he was from Cleveland, Ohio, and he was really into Elvis Presley and retro stuff. And then here I come, I’m totally into Hendrix and fusion and bebop, and I’m classically trained from high school. And at the same time, I have a problem with authority, especially in musical terms.
At the same time, Van Halen comes out, when I was feeling like people would try to get guitar players to be more mellow. And [Eddie Van Halen] just came out and said, “No, I’m gonna have a good time with this guitar.” And I just thought he was amazing, always smiling. It wasn’t doom-and-gloom shred guitars. In fact, the whole shredding thing didn’t start for another five years. It was still pretty swinging back then.
So “Nineteen Eighty” was really about that state of mind I had about what I wanted to do, but for some reason talked myself out of it in 1980. Thinking it was cooler to be a little bit more New Wave and downplay my musical chops. We were wondering, “How do you do that while displaying chops?” And the answer is, “You don’t display chops, you downplay that stuff.”
“Nineteen Eighty” was an expression of that positive attitude at the time. And when I was recording it, there was an Eddie Van Halen signature phaser pedal on the ground in my studio, and I looked at it one day, and I said, “I should plug that in.” It’s like synchronicity, writing a song about 1980 and then you see a pedal that kind of embodies that sound.
You’ll obviously be home during this press cycle. How else will it differ?
That’s a really good question. It’s a funny thing. I noticed that in times, celebrities really go to great lengths to dress down and I’ve been thinking a lot about that. Like, what does that mean? Because not for a second is it never show business. It’s always show business. I’ve never shied away from admitting that. That’s why they call it show business.
But here we are, and everyone is forced to do press from home and without the aid of makeup artists and great photographers and without their support team. And I thought, “Well, yeah, but that doesn’t mean that you just show up in your pajamas in front of a poorly-lit room.” It kind of goes against our job in a way.
My position in this hasn’t changed. I’m a musician because I’m an artist and I can’t help it, but also my job is to lift people’s spirits and to supply them with music to help them celebrate or commiserate. So I’m not going to sort of slack off just because times are tough. I still have a job to do. I’m going to get busy working on a new record, and I’m going to promote this album, let people know what it is. If they like it, great. If they don’t, it’s really no different from any other time I’ve released a record, other than the fact that we’re navigating some kind of incredible tragedy.
So you don’t see yourself doing a livestream or anything?
When the disaster really started to be obvious to people, I did get a lot of these funny requests like, “Hey! How about a livestreaming concert?” And of course, they’re really thinking about commerce. They’re not really thinking about the logistics. I’ve mentioned to everybody, “You know that means that I have to get my band and my crew all together in a room, which first of all violates the shelter-at-home rule?” And most of us don’t even live in the same city, let alone town or country. So you can forget about that. That would be me from a webcam, holding my guitar. It’s not the same.
It kind of offends me that I’m going to lean on all these people out there to help me out from a business point of view. I’m in this phase where I’m giving and I’m sending out. I’m not gonna say, “You can’t buy a ticket at the local theater, so I’m gonna make you buy a ticket over the internet for something that is not really what I plan to do.” It just doesn’t seem right.
It’s crazy good fortune that all of us were able to finish this album when we did. It would have been devastating, and I know it has been for so many artists just about finished or right in the middle of a project and they had to stop. It’s a horrible thing, but we were fortunate to have everything finished and ready to come out April 10th. So I’m thinking I’m not going to do a concert in front of a laptop. It would be such a letdown, and plus, I’ve already got the album and we shot a lot of footage. Let’s just show people all the good stuff, because that’s what we were planning on doing anyway.