Bigger, heavier, more riffs; it’s all go for the all-star Chickenfoot project and their, erm, second album, III. Martyn Casserly catches up with the band’s writer Joe Satriani to chat about guitars, amps, effects and more
Joe Satriani is gamely attempting to explain the title of the latest Chickenfoot album, III. ‘This photo,’ he explains, brandishing a picture of himself playing guitar and sporting his iconic sunglasses, ‘was taken while we should have been recording.
There were 3-D photographers all over the place, which is why my expression is saying “Get out of my face!” I was in this booth for an hour while they told to me to look over here, to look over there…
‘Outside, the rest of the guys were having a party, – eating lunch, drinking tequila. Then one of our managers walked in and said “What do you think about the name?” I was like, “What are you talking about? I’ve been stuck in this room!” Apparently they’d all come up with the title, and it was IV. I said I didn’t really mind; if people liked the music, they wouldn’t care what the album was called. He left, disappointed that I wasn’t excited, and then somewhere along the line the name got changed to III… but I missed that meeting, too! I just play guitar, and write the music…’
When your band contains characters like Sammy Hagar, Chad Smith and Mike Anthony, it pays to have a pragmatic attitude. Satriani’s demeanour is always relaxed, funny and humble – all of which seems to have served him well during the tricky transition from composing solo projects to writing for a band.
‘You leave spaces, and you have to be extremely flexible,’ he muses. ‘Someone might say “Great song… I hate this part.” Or “Can we play the song twice as fast?” “Can we make it more commercial?” “Can we make it less commercial?” You never know. So I sit there and take it all in and think how can I make everybody happy. How can I reflect and get the thing going?’
There’s an added pressure: all the band members have varied outside commitments, and that can mean a tight schedule. ‘We have to be prepared to make the actual recordings at a moment’s notice,’ Satriani says. ‘We get together, we pick a song to work on, within an hour and a half we’re tracking, and then we’re done. Because we record live there’s no sequencing, there’s no click tracks, it’s just everybody getting excited and the proverbial tape starting to roll. You’ve got to bring it to the session and be ready to lay it down.’
To maximise the time Chickenfoot has in the studio, Satriani prepares songs well in advance. ‘I had most of this music written before I went on the Wormhole tour, so everybody had about 14 or 16 songs – just music, my demos from home – for a number of months before I showed up. I wanted to write for Sammy so he could sing lower; I wanted to have bigger, thicker grooves; and I wanted more songs for us to play as an ensemble. I think Chad wanted to be less frantic and heavier, and we all wanted to hear more of Mike. We had a very long list of things!’
To achieve these various elements the band sought the skills of producer Mike Fraser, who has previously worked for AC/DC, Metallica, Biffy Clyro and Aerosmith. ‘The first album was with Andy Johns, and I have to say that Andy likes guitars thinner and smaller,’ Satriani points out. ‘He’s more into the way Jimmy Page used to do it… you know, make the guitars thin and push them out to the side. But on this record we were working exclusively with Mike, and I kept telling him that I just wanted the guitars to be big so that when I play these riffs, that’s enough. I don’t want to think that I need to put a 12-string and everything on top of it – it should just be Chad, Mike and me laying down the heavy riff.’
In the search for girth, Satriani teamed up with Marshall to put the finishing touches to his much-rumoured new signature amp. ‘When I started getting back into using Marshalls I liked the 410, but there were things about the stock JVMs I thought might be working against me. So I got together with Santiago Alverez, the main engineer for Marshall. I was interested in removing a lot of the compression that makes it a great bedroom amp. You know, you can play it at a whisper and it sounds huge… but my job is playing loud. We used the prototype for the Black Swans And Wormhole Wizards recordings and then we did the whole tour.
‘It’s very versatile. You play an Ibanez into it and it sounds one way, then you can use an old Les Paul with the same settings and the pairing sounds really beautiful. It’s got great attack, great sustain and great dynamics, which is what I was looking to do with my signature model. I brought it into the studio for Chickenfoot and did just about everything with it.’
Judging from the names of some of Joe’s songs and effect pedals, should we expect the new amp to be called something exotic like a Marshion Ampliflyer. ‘Nah, I’d hate to screw it up by giving it a stupid name!’ laughs Joe. ‘I don’t think we’ve even picked the grill cloth. I promise I won’t make it pink…’
The new amp also caused Joe to rethink his approach to pedals. ‘Usually when tracking live I’ve got a minimal setup on the ground. I had a POG, a Micro POG, a Voodoo Vibe, an Octavia, and also a Big Bad Wah. I’ll have a Saturator, and an Ice-9, which I didn’t use a lot because I was forcing myself to really get deep into the amp. Four channels, three modes for each channel… there are a million sounds in there.’
Another new addition to the Satriani stable is a single-coil loaded Ibanez. ‘That guitar wound up on a few songs,’ Joe says. ‘We started working on it maybe eight years ago. We tried all different kinds of woods and pickups, but right before I did the Experience Hendrix Tour we tried some Basswood pickups Steve Blucher had made for DiMarzio, and they sounded amazing! Everyone told me it was the best-sounding Strat on tour. I thought, well, that’s really great… considering it’s not even a Strat! It’s got that attack, and it’s round, very dynamic, but it’s got that tubular tone. I had a great time playing that guitar.’
Perhaps the most surprising new piece of equipment Joe used on the album was a piano, which he employed to write the song Come Closer. ‘It was the only time that Sam had given me lyrics already,’ says Joe. ‘I wrote it on the piano one morning, recorded it on my iPhone, then emailed it to him before the session. Luckily he really responded to it, and we recorded a version that day… but I hadn’t learned to play it on guitar. I’m not good enough on the piano to sit there with the guys and record live with it, so the first live take on the guitar part was weird. I was like “I don’t know, man, that guitar player is sucking, you know?” So it went through a transition for me trying to figure out how to get all those piano parts to flow on the guitar.’
With the album due to be released in the autumn, Chickenfoot are now gearing up to take it on the road. ‘Last time we toured before the record was out, and then we came over here and did festivals, then back to the US,’ remembers Joe. ‘It was sort of like a semi-hard working tour… half-work, half-vacation. This time we’ve discussed doing specific “here’s a new record coming out” sort of performances, then hopefully a real hard-work type of tour early next year. For me there’s a lot of double-work going on, but I love it.’