Interview by Danny Coleman
“Busy,” says guitar master and virtuoso Joe Satriani as he prepares for two local in-store appearances at Wentworth Galleries. “Yeah, time flies by right now and that always happens when you’re really busy.”
We all know Satriani for is searing, complex and melodic guitar abilities but more recently he has begun to present his other creative passion; his artwork. Over the last several years, Joe has been working with Wentworth Galleries and art galleries all across the U.S. to display his art but this time, there is an additional twist; Joe has incorporated a live performance as well.
Over the years, Satriani’s paintings have been borderline abstract or as this space likes to say, “Abstract Realism” and prominent in many of his creations is his depiction of alien life forms but this time; he has changed things up and is now putting his art on finely crafted guitars.
“I guess, oh boy, in the last six months, I did a really huge variety of things,” he began, as he discussed the change in direction. “I kept refining the alien look and then the alien writing, I did more collaborations and really expanded with the guitars. I started painting electric and acoustic guitars on canvases and of course, then I had to paint on actual guitars. I now have got four new ones ready for this week and I’m waiting to receive another four from my clear coat guy up in Washington; it’s a long process. These days you wait a long time to receive the guitars and then I’ve got to take them apart, sand them and then paint them and then I send them out to get clear coated and then they come back. The series I’ve been doing over the last six months have been playable guitars, which is a real change. So, I can’t go too crazy with gallons of paint on these things. I have to keep the paint to kind of a minimum so that my hands can still operate the guitar for live performances and that’s been an interesting challenge; switching the neck to a Maple neck and coming up with some new ways of being artistic with it without making the fingers get all caught up in the paint. So, that’s been great and I was able to bring in some more of my faces to these guitars where before they were very sci-fi looking, now they’re more portraiture and stuff like that. I started that way but I guess people think that they’re sci-fi faces or cartoons or something you’d find in the odd graphic novel. I was kind of inspired by Moghal and his way of doing these beautiful portraits of people but when you look at the proportions; they’re all out of whack. I just thought that was really beautiful; whereas Picasso kind of brought out an edge, a dark or an ugly edge when he went distorted, Moghal went the other way. He somehow gave these people strange, elongated necks and funny looking eyes and really rough features in his painting approaches but somehow the end result was beautiful and spiritual. So, that’s what I was working on and this goes back maybe three years before my introduction to Wentworth Gallery and I did a shift, so it’s been nice to be able to bring back some of the stuff that I see hanging in the walls of my house and work them into the guitars and that’s what I like.”
In a previous interview, Satriani elaborated upon his use of aliens in his work and how at some point in our lives, “We are all aliens” because we are put into foreign situations such as moving to a new school, starting a new job or being the “New guy” in a band and until we are accepted; we are the aliens in these little micro-cosmos. So, when asked if that thought process still infiltrates his work now that he’s customizing guitars and expanding his works; he couldn’t help but chuckle.
“That’s really funny,” he laughed, “I get that all the time. When I started out playing guitar, I remember my friend saying, “Oh, that’s really great, you can play just like that guy and it sounds just like that song but it does sound a little weird when you play it; it sounds a little weird; you know?” So, I guess I always had a different way of re-interpreting Rock and Blues in my own way and when I started to draw, people started to give me that same kind of comment. They wondered why my subjects all look so strange but to me, I really felt that I was concentrating on inner feelings and thoughts and not so much on the superficial lines that we see; you know? Like, it’s sort of like when you’re walking down the street and you see a stranger; you look at their face for a second and what do you see? You see the outlines of the human face and you might register something that interests you; the hair, its size, you know, the basic shape or something like that but it’s all superficial, it’s all just stuff you see for a second and it doesn’t really matter. What really matters to us is how people feel and what they’re thinking, that’s what all our relationships are based on, what’s coming from the inside of the person, and we learn to accept the outside as it changes over time. So, I found this to be the main part of my subject matter when I was painting. I thought well, I grew up around artists and they were really great at representing reality and painting the superficial and I wanted to go deeper. I wanted to paint what was on the inside; I know that sounds crazy but that was my excuse. Every time I paint something, I’d say, yeah but that’s how this person feels or if I’m doing a self-portrait of me, you know, at the end of the night on tour; of course, the hands look a little weird because my hands are tired; you know? My shoulders are up a little bit because I’ve been hunching over the guitar for three hours or maybe I don’t draw any ears on it because I’ve just been blasting my ears with music for three hours. So, these are the things that I would put into the portrait but yeah, it gets kind of weird when I try to explain it to people, they still look at me like; yeah.”
“There is a difference between the graphic artist and the artist that is taking advantage of what you said, “Creative license,” he continued, “Than them trying to represent something we hadn’t thought of before or something we’re feeling but we haven’t really admitted that part but of course, when I’m putting together an album package, I need to lean on people who are really great at graphic arts because that’s what you need. You need someone with that really great eye for straight lines, interesting colors and the sensitivity to know what’s going to look good when it’s a teeny little icon on the phone or blown up at Times Square. That’s a whole different kind of artist, sometimes they blend together but what I like to do is, as I said before, I’m bringing stuff that’s on the inside out to the front and I’m getting rid of anything, any convention of physical form if it doesn’t serve the purpose of the field.”
Saturday March 11 and Sunday March 12, Joe brought his works of art to The Hard Rock Hotel & Casino in Atlantic City, NJ and the Wentworth Gallery at King of Prussia Mall in King of Prussia, PA. In the past, Joe would only be present at the gallery; why the decision to incorporate a performance?
“We did one of these before at the Monsters On The Mountain Festival in Tennessee and I thought it was really a lot of fun,” he said enthusiastically. “My natural environment is to play music for people and to have the guitar on; it’s a bit nerve wracking to walk around an art gallery for me without my guitar and just talk to people (laughs). So, I jumped at the chance to play and of course I got to play guitars that I had illustrated and put my art all over and that’s always a lot of fun. I get inspiration from the strange looking guitars. So, Christian and I thought well, we should just make it as fun as possible; maybe we can do this some more. So, I got busy; first of all, ordering the guitars, which is quite difficult because we still have supply chain issues with getting really good instruments delivered on time, that is still an issue and then just making these guitars and getting my team involved and making them completely professional, playable things takes a lot of time but what better way to show it off then to get on stage and play them for the people who show up to the event and then hopefully do a little jam if the person who buys the guitar can play a guitar; they’ll come up on stage and we’ll play a little jam together and that makes it a lot of fun.”
Buy some art, jam with Joe Satriani; sounds like a win-win all around, especially since he is very interested in communicating, not only with his music and art but on a cerebral level with his relationships and possibly even the universe as well.
“I’m calling from my studio right now and I’m working on about 10 or 12 pieces and some of them are combinations of alien heads and a lot of my alien writing surrounding a moon rise or an earth rise and I am running with that same theme that sometimes we either feel that way maybe on an hour to hour basis or as you pointed out sometimes it’s a big shift in your life when you move into a new town, a new job or something like that and you feel like the one on the outside speaking a different language. I think part of what makes the human race so interesting is the whole communication aspect, not only do we thrive by communicating with each other but we also struggle with it and even though it seems impossible, we’re trying to do it with the outside universe that we have so little understanding of but we’re still sending messages out. I mean, there’s “Johnny B. Goode” on a disc floating in space right now; it’s just crazy when you think about it (laughs). So, when you go to sit down and try to represent it with art, you realize oh, I can’t even get as crazy as reality because there is nothing crazier than the thought of Chuck Berry’s music being sent into outer space as a form of communication. I was just talking to somebody about this yesterday, about how bizarre life might be if there is some other kind of life form out there when you just look at the variety of life on the planet Earth and how we can’t even get close to understanding each other’s reality; it’s so completely mind-blowingly daunting to think that we’d be able to communicate with something that’s a million light years away. I mean, just a stone’s throw from where any of us live; there’s probably 1000 life forms right here on planet Earth that we can’t communicate with and that are completely mysterious to us. I mean, we can’t communicate with whales or jellyfish or bacteria; we can hardly control our dogs to do the right thing day-to-day (laughs). So, just the thought that we suddenly see a visitor from light years away and you know, we make some hand signals and say, “We come in peace” and it would be understood; it’s fantastical, it’s unrealistic but it’s worth ripping on you know?”
“Ripping” is exactly what Satriani plans to do in the future; the very near future.
“In one month, I’m actually starting the European Tour that I had to cancel three times. I’m so excited just thinking that I’m gonna be able to go on stage and finally get back to Europe. I’ve practically grown up there, I spent half my life on tour there. So, yeah, I’m very excited that that’s what we’re doing and then somewhere along the way I’ve got to start writing and planning for a new album; it’s about that time in my cycle of things. I’ve been writing music and I’m not quite sure where I’m going with it yet but usually when I get out on tour it starts to make sense.” To find out more about Satriani and the Wentworth Gallery events, please visit http://www.satriani.com/