The late French visual artist Henri Matisse once said, “Don’t wait for inspiration; it comes while working.” It’s a mantra storied guitarist Joe Satriani fiercely embraced as he weathered the pandemic with the rest of the world.
While his creativity allowed him to pursue a lifelong love of painting (more on that later), it also fueled the creation of The Elephants of Mars, the Long Island native’s 19th studio outing and the first one he recorded entirely remotely. And while Satriani’s initial intent was to create “two loose albums,” one instrumental and one structured around vocal material that he’d give away for free, the extended and seemingly unending downtime fueled by COVID-19 was his fuel for a creative self-challenge.
“Last year, I found myself saying that I had no excuses [not to record],” Satriani said. “People are dying, and I’m sitting here and I’m fine. And if I come up with an excuse to not make music for people that want to hear it, that’s really bad. I wrote it all down—write better songs, play better guitar, get better sounds, get better arrangements. I really put it to myself that I was not going to allow any excuse of scheduling to stop me from trying to best myself.
“The reason I came to that conclusion is that very often when you’re out there working in former days, there would be a schedule thing. You’d only have two weeks at this room and this guy is coming in for five days, so you’d better record right away. In the end, you can go back and make excuses and say things like the record was rushed. Or I couldn’t get this person and we had to work with that person.
“So I reached out to my friend, Eric Caudieux, and said we should make an album, and I wasn’t going to settle for less. I told him I needed him to push me as well if he thought I needed to play something again or write something better. I told him I needed him to do that and we shouldn’t hold back. We weren’t going to worry about any other parameter in the entertainment world that we used to imagine was stopping us from applying ourselves.”
Along with keyboardist Caudieux (who also produced these sessions and has been working with the guitarist since 1998’s Crystal Planet), Satriani wrangled bassist/engineer Bryan Beller (who last played on 2015’s Shockwave Supernova) and former John Mellencamp/John Fogerty drummer Kenny Aronoff, who makes his second consecutive tour of duty on the heels of 2020’s Shapeshifting.
“We were sending each other files, and it was a bit awkward at first,” Satriani explained. “The benefit of doing this was I was able to tell people to give me their best, most creative approach to their performance, and don’t worry about the timing because we don’t have a schedule. If they needed to take a week to do one song, and then they decided to do it again, that was OK.
“We never make records like that. It’s more like we have three hours to get one song down, and then we have to move on to something else. This was great. Removing the budget clock on the wall—it was suddenly gone. I think that everyone was able to really give something that was really unique to each song, and I’m so grateful that they did that for me.”
And while navigating this brave new world of recording, one of the other passions Satriani was able to pursue was putting paint to canvas. He grew up in a household where the youngest of five saw two of his older sisters not only earn degrees in fine art, but go on to work in the art world. It was less than a decade ago when he decided to go from doing line drawings on his computer to practicing something more tactile.
“I’d been drawing ever since I was a young kid,” he recalled. “As I started to work in the music world, I started to apply some of that stuff to make guitar straps, picks and designs for albums and CDs. I got to a point where I turned to my wife, who also has a degree in art, and said that I didn’t want to touch the computer. I wanted to learn how to get the stuff on the canvas, but I didn’t know the first thing about it anymore. So she educated me in what you have to do to a canvas, which paints do what, brushes I needed and what other things I could use to start painting. I started from scratch, and it was really fun. It was messy, but it was fun.”
Shortly after being invited to work with Cory Danzinger and Ravi Dosaj from the SceneFour Art Collective in Los Angeles on another project, he showed his original works to the duo. The pair was impressed enough to introduce him to Christian O’Mahony, owner of the Wentworth Gallery chain. After meeting with O’Mahony and his team, the sexuagenarian instrumentalist was commissioned to create works of art on both canvas and on real guitars. It’s been an experience Satriani has been humbled by.
“Some of these guitars are things you can play and aren’t just only things you keep in a case on the wall,” he said. “It’s been really wild—just being able to do all kinds of subjects and being given the opportunity to make something and have it get to the market. It’s very much like music. You can make recordings at home, but unless you get to release them in a proper way, you don’t really feel like you’re getting your art out there.
“In this particular case, this was the first time in my life, other than the guitar straps, where my artwork was really getting to the market. People were walking by the galleries and not really knowing who I was and saying they need the picture of that guitar at their house. It’s been a wonderful set of circumstances that I never would have dreamed would happen.”
Satriani has experienced his worlds colliding over the past few months. His sixth art show found him flying out to Gatlinburg, TN, where he was the main attraction for an art show and a private performance. He was able to play the guitars that he’d painted for the people who bought them, while also getting to see all his canvas work in one big room.
That said, returning to the road is priority number one for him. With COVID-19 restrictions being lifted, he’ll be on the road for a year and a half, hitting the United States before heading overseas in 2023 to hopefully undertake a tour that has already been canceled three separate times. And while he admits “…it’s an unusual thing—the idea of a rock guitarist playing instrumentals all night long,” the loyalty his fan base has shown over the decades is what keeps him coming back with albums and tour dates.
“Over the decades, we have communed with our fans all around the world and put on some really fun, exciting shows,” he said. “For this tour, there will be plenty of room where we’ll be able to play old favorites along with new, unexpected tracks that we haven’t played before. I always give a lot of room for the other players in the band to show their stuff and make it really interesting musically. We connect with the audience and put on a good visual show as well.”
Joe Satriani is performing at the Fox Theater in Oakland on Oct. 2 at 7:30pm. Tickets available at thefoxoakland.com.
Joe Satriani’s Fave Artists
Joe Satriani may best be known for his high-flying six-string exploits as a premiere rock guitar instrumentalist, but art and painting stoked his creative juices since he was a kid growing up in Carle Place. The pandemic and the subsequent existential pause button that came with it not only allowed Satriani to record the recently-released The Elephants of Mars, but also to continue his painting passion that began less than a decade ago after deciding to graduate from line drawing and working on his computer.
The sexuagenarian eventually got good enough to warrant the attention of Los Angeles-based SceneFour Art Collective and before long, Satriani was balancing gallery openings with recording studio dates while navigating COVID-19.
“I’m really fortunate that my health has been good, and it didn’t interrupt my creative flow and physical abilities to play guitar, which is really great,” he said. “I spent a lot of time painting. I wound up with this new career as an artist that just sort of fell into my lap. The two really seem to help each other out—the painting and the recording.
“I recently flew out to Gatlinburg, TN, a beautiful little town in the Smoky Mountains. I did an art show and a private musical performance for the patrons that was at the [Gatlinburg] Convention Center, which was hosting the ‘Monsters of ’80s Metal Festival.’ It was such a crazy thing to do, especially after years of pandemic. Just to be able to play the guitars that I’ve painted for the people that bought the guitars and to see all my canvas work in one big room—it’s great.”
In rocking out in two creative disciplines, the longtime Bay Area native, who has spent more than 40 years in San Francisco (“I do love it. It’s where I met my wife and where we raised our son. He’s a San Franciscan, so I guess it is home now.”) was happy to share painters who inspire him to pick up a brush and create.
(July 12, 1884 to Jan. 24, 1920)
“He is my favorite. I can’t believe the two things he accomplishes at once, which is a striking emotional impact with the portraits that he does. And then, the other thing is they’re so weird. It’s like some weird alchemy. How does he make you fall in love with the subjects and yet, they are distorted and the colors are all freaky? Everything about it is freaky. It’s still a beautiful image that transmits something really special of love of the subject, so I love that about him.”
(April 20, 1840 to July 6, 1916)
“He was another crazy painter from 100 years ago that again used freaky colors. His use of iridescent colors at a time when people weren’t using them—if I could go back in time, I’d ask him what he was on. How come everything is so different? There is a spiritual side to what he’s trying to communicate that I think is so unique and beautiful.”
(Dec. 22, 1960 to Aug. 12, 1988)
“I think Basquiat had so much talent in being able to compose properly, his completely freaky, chaotic paintings. We all know them as being completely chaotic and busy, but they never lose their balanced sense of composition, and I think this is a sign of a true artist. I think Warhol had the same talent. They were very different, but if they had to, they were really good representational artists. They could draw anatomy 24-7. What it goes to show us is a very unique approach to art. Both wonderfully crazy people, but I would say every time I see Basquiat’s stuff, it just takes my breath away.”