For Joe Satriani, the origins of his new 13th studio album, Professor Satchifunkilus and the Musterion of Rock, started with two strange piano chords and a cryptic line: It’s a mystery… The legendary, multiple Grammy-nominated guitarist played the chords over and over, transposing them to the guitar, trying to divine their relation to each other and bizarre hold they had on his senses. Still, there was that line, It’s a mystery… Clearly, Satriani was on to something. But what? “From the smallest and weirdest things, a trip begins,“ Satriani says, laughing. “I became obsessed both by the chords I was playing and the line that I wrote. They came out of nowhere, as if they were dropped from the sky, so I knew I had to figure out what was going on.“
Satriani began to research, and in his readings he discovered that the word “mystery” had ancient origins. “The word first appeared in ancient Greece as ‘musterion’ to describe some of the false doctrines of Greek fraternities that were popping up 2000 years ago. St. Paul, however, used the word in a different way. He said that once you embrace the ’musterion’ that the truth will be revealed. Then the subsequent English translations of the New Testament took the word and changed it to ’mystery.’ The word mutated in both spelling and meaning.“
For Satriani, who was by now putting a memorable (and ultimately surging) guitar melody to his beguiling two-chord leitmotif, it was as enlightening moment. “Embrace the ‘musterion.‘” he says. “As soon as I had that in my head, the song ‘Musterion’ just took flight. My guitar parts came rather effortlessly.” More than that, Satriani’s mission became clear, and he began his new record in earnest.
Okay, so he’s not your average shredder. That much was clear in 1987, when he stormed the gates with Surfing with the Alien, his second album and the follow-up to his self-financed debut, Not of This Earth. An action-packed record of bracing, delirious guitar instrumentals, it was a runaway success, cracking Billboard’s Top 20 and going Gold (it has since gone multi-Platinum). Satriani (or “Satch,” as he became popularly known from his song “Satch Boogie”) had done the impossible, hitting a bulls-eye before anyone knew a target existed. But for the former guitar teacher turned pro, a David amongst the Goliaths of the music industry, it was the culmination of a dream he had the day he quit his high school football team (not coincidentally on the day of Jimi Hendrix’s death) to devote his life to the guitar: that six strings could rule the world.
It was an ascendant notion then, and it remains so now. Over a two-decade- long career, Satriani has released a dozen critically acclaimed studio albums that have sold over ten million copies worldwide. In the process, he has established himself as a player whose emotional musical dexterity equals that of his physical gifts. His solo concerts are sell-out events, but in 1996, need a new challenge (and perhaps a big of fun) he formed G3, a concert tour of galvanizing guitar music featuring Satriani with his close friend and former student(!) Steve Vai, along with a floating third member (the notables have included Eric Johnson, Yngwie Malmsteen, Robert Fripp, among others). But for Joe Satriani, it is the creation of music that is its own reward, and on Professor Satchifunkilus and the Musterion of Rock, he embarks on his most fascinating journey.
An album this ambitious and filled with epic themes -- they range from the deeply personal ballad “Revelation,“ originally written about the death of a friend’s father until Satriani realized he was writing about his own father’s recent passing, to the heart-on-his-sleeve love note to his wife, Rubina, “Come On Baby,“ to the all-out gonzo sci-fi crunch of “I Just Wanna Rock,” about a giant robot on the lam who encounters a rock concert -- would have one easily expecting a double-CD to contain all of the grand impulses and matchless music-making. Satriani, however, set a goal for himself and stuck to it. “The album would be 10 songs and no more,” he says.
“As is the case with most of my albums, I started with between 30 and 40 songs, knowing full well that most of them were going to bite the dust. I decided early on, even before we started tracking, that this record was going to be 10 tight tracks -- a clear, succinct statement. At the same time, they weren’t all going to be just three-minute pop ditties; I wanted to make sure they took you somewhere, that they mattered. Plus, the songs had to be things that I wanted to take on tour with me and explore night after night. So a lot of thought went into whittling down the list.”
In limiting himself to 10 songs, Satriani intentionally chose a smaller canvas but one that would be filled with slashes of bold colors, epic themes, and high emotions. But the genius of Satch’s creativity is this: Most brief albums feel just that: skimpy, short on substance, and lacking any real linear dramatic flow. They narrow as they proceed. This one, however, expands -- and, in doing so, it becomes that rarity in music: an epic that was never intended to be an epic. “That was always in the back of my head,“ Satriani explains. “How can I use brevity to my advantage? What I found was, 10 songs helped me focus my energy on every aspect of my writing. Most of the time, I try to do too much -- I have so many pieces of music floating around, and my temptation is to want to give the audience everything I have. This time, I tempered that impulse. Instead of 18 or 19 songs that go off the rails and leave you feeling scattered and fuzzy, I wanted to give you a sharp shot to the senses.”
Satch wrote quickly, recording elaborate demos in his home studio during the summer months of 2007. (“Come on Baby” is a notable exception: the guitarist began the song while snowed in during a vacation in Lake Tahoe in 1993; it wasn’t until last year that, upon the urging of his son, ZZ, he realized it was strong enough to finish.) When Satriani convened in the fall with longtime co-producer and engineer John Cuniberti, drummer Jeff Campitelli, and bassist Matt Bissonette at the Plant in Saulsalito, California, he felt “more ready than I ever have to start an album. I could literally see and hear the record before me. It’s almost like it was already there. All I had to do was wish it.”
There will always be songwriters who aren’t great guitarists and guitarists who aren’t great songwriters. Satch, however, possesses both talents in equal and extreme measures. He’s a storyteller, sketching tales and characters, as concerned with mise en scene and mood as any master filmmaker. Take “Out of the Sunrise,” for example, with complex guitar lines as bewitching as they are anodynic. “It’s about somebody, let’s say it’s me but it could just as easily be you,” says Satriani. “He’s been up all night and he’s looking out at the dawn. And suddenly everything that he’s done wrong in his life becomes clear. But he realizes that it’s a new day, a new start, that he still has a chance. Ultimately, it’s a song of hope.”
A real-life figure, Asik Vaysel, Turkey’s premier saz player (it‘s an ancient four-stringed instrument), turns up in two songs that amount to something of an extended tribute. The first, the appropriately named “Asik Vaysel,” is an enchanting and exhilarating tour de force that was inspired during Satriani’s recent tour of Turkey. “Our Turkish promoter was incredulous to learn that I’d never heard Vaysel’s music,” says Satriani. “So he gave me two Vaysel CDs and I and was completely overcome. The music resonated within me as if I’d known it all my life. On ’Asik Vaysel,’ I tried to celebrate the experience of hearing it for the first time.”
Satriani, who can make music out of a doorknob if he had to, nixed the idea of playing an actual saz (“too obvious”), so he tried a different approach: “I thought, What if I barely press down on the guitar strings and I barely pick the strings? To my surprise, it allowed me to evoke the spirit of Vaysel’s recordings in a very cool way. I wound up playing in a way that I never played before. The guitar really sounds different.”
Vaysel’s spirit lives in the wondrous “Andalusia,” an elaborate feast for the senses in which Satriani imagines himself as Vaysel wandering through the Spanish countryside. “I didn’t start out to channel Vaysel in such a way,” says Satriani, “but during my last trip to Spain I was so struck by its incredible beauty that upon returning home I thought, What would Asik Vaysel feel if he saw these vistas? And before you knew it, I was writing about him.”
Of course, a Joe Satriani album wouldn’t be a Joe Satriani without the wild and woolly, and on a handful of pulverizing cuts such as “Overdriver,” about a pernicious Funny Car with a mind of its own, “Professor Satchifunkilus,” concerning a cartoonish mack daddy decked out in an explosion of “Soul Train” finery (by the way, that sax you hear is courtesy of none other than ZZ Satriani), “Diddle-y-a-doo-dat,” a mad dash of jacked-up swing, and the soon-to-be-audience participation classic “I Just Wanna Rock,“ Satch kicks out the jams six ways to Sunday, unleashing fusillades of sound that rages with fire and brimstone and damnation to Hell.
“It’s funny,” says Satriani. “There’s part of me that still gets off on playing wild, out-of-control guitar. I think I’ll always stay in that state of arrested development. But another part of me tried to do more with less on this album. There’s less songs, for one. But there’s also less notes on some of those songs. Still, I tried to make sure that every second was filled with something -- a new sound, a new riff, a new emotion. Every time I found myself doing what I’d done on earlier albums, I stopped myself and said, ‘What else do I have inside of me?’”
Distinguished, hypnotic, brilliantly conceived and executed, and positively electrifying, Professor Satchifunkilus and the Musterion of Rock, despite its lighthearted title, is filled with the kind of arty vigor and bratty fever that has made Joe Satriani one of the greatest guitarists of his day. But if the measure of a musician is the human spirit he can coax out of a note, then Satch is doing something quite worthwhile with his extraordinary gifts: He’s letting you in on a feeling.
Or as he might say, It’s a mystery.