Guitar virtuoso Joe Satriani has been laying down out-of-this-world riffs since his first album, Not of This Earth. His instrumental albums, like Surfing with the Alien and Shockwave Supernova, are in a whole different dimension from commercial sonics, and still sell enough to go platinum and gold. But it is his 1998 album Crystal Planet which contains all the elements for an epic story.
Crystal Planet, the new sci-fi comic from Opus Comics, was written by Satriani and Tony Lee, and drawn by Richard Friend. The five-issue series is a “space odyssey where Satchel Walker, a man out of time, finds himself caught between desperate factions as they battle for resources in the perilous orbit of a dying star.” The adventure is all about how the power and emotion of music can restore harmony to the timestream.
Satriani’s latest record, The Elephants of Mars, imagines itself through the Red Planet and sails in the waters beneath Jupiter’s moon Ganymede, the largest moon in the solar system.
Satriani quit the football team for music groups when he heard the news of Jimi Hendrix’s death, and set his own course in progressive fretwork. Besides his solo output, he founded the all-star “G3” guitar extravaganza, joined supergroup Chickenfoot, featuring former Van Halen frontman Sammy Hagar, bassist Michael Anthony, and Red Hot Chili Peppers’ drummer Chad Smith, and still found time to lend his fingers to Spinal Tap’s 1992 album, Break Like the Wind.
Satriani sat down with Den of Geek to talk about the new comic opus and album, and also why the concept of a universal language is a cosmic joke. The below interview has been edited for length.
Den of Geek: I was playing “E 104 St. NYC 1973” on repeat while I wrote out the questions. I love the conversations between guitar and bass. So, before we blast into space, can you tell me about the street?
Joe Satriani: That address between First and Second Avenue in Spanish Harlem was where my grandparents settled. When they first came over from Italy, they were in Hell’s Kitchen for about a year or two before going to that address, and they stayed there until my grandmother passed away in 1989. My whole youth, every Sunday was spent there. When the weather was good, we were out on the stoop. It was a wonderland when we were little kids from the suburbs, and we would hang out with our cousins and our grandparents. Then, of course, in the ‘70s, as I became aware and a young musician, it was both exhilarating and frightening to suddenly realize what the reality of New York City in the neighborhood was really all about.
In the 1980s, the building where my grandmother had an apartment was the only building that was occupied, the rest of them had no windows, some of them no doors. It was a completely abandoned neighborhood, except for that one building. I think there was only one other tenant in the building. It was frightening, but she was from the old world and refused to move. She just wanted to hang out in that crazy neighborhood.
But the song really reflects me coming of age. I had to pick a year that was right in the middle of all of it. I turned 14 in 1970, and by the end of the 70s I’d moved to the San Francisco Bay area. So, 1973 seemed to be that period where I was starting to do gigs in the city. Back then you’d start playing at 10:30 at night and finish at 4 in the morning. So, at 4:45 a.m. you’d be on stage with a black Russian sitting on your amp, and jamming as the sun was coming up before you drove back to wherever you lived. That kind of jam is on the album like something we would have played. That encompassed the rock, the jazz, the fusion, the multicultural, just the fantastic explosion of art and music that was had just by being in New York City.
Your entire career has been extraterrestrially based. Music is math, and math is a universal language. Can aliens understand what you’re playing?
I hope so. I hope they’re listening and going, “Oh, you got to reach out and talk to this guy.” Ever since I was a little kid, I was fascinated with the idea that we were in outer space. I remember just like it was yesterday: I’m in second grade. I went to a Catholic school for quite a number of years. So, it was a very rigid upbringing, and I was sitting in this classroom staring out the window. All of a sudden, I’m interrupted by the nun who says “Mr. Satriani, what are you doing staring out into space again?” And I stopped for a moment and said, “You mean I can see outer space from here?” Of course, the whole class laughed, but I really thought what she was telling me was that if I looked out the window hard enough, I could actually perceive outer space.
As I started to grow a real brain, I realized we are always in outer space, we’ve never been any other place, the Earth is in outer space. Suddenly, science fiction made a lot more sense to me. It was playing with reality, adding to it. And what I saw around us, as I got older, was the horror of humanity. People are just terrible to each other.
I grew up in the ‘60s. There was The Twilight Zone, and from there to Star Trek. All of it just fed right into this strange attitude I had about science fiction and science and space exploration. I think there was a bond there that got formed between me and that, and it never left.
All my life I’ve wanted to use the phrase chronosynclastically infundibulated. Satchel Walker seems to be very similar to Kurt Vonnegut Jr.’s Billy Pilgrim, and so it goes. What got you into Vonnegut, and what do you get out of him?
[Crystal Planet] started out because my writing partner, Ned Evans, also a crazy guitar player, got a job making in-house videos for some corporation up in Boise. He was sitting there all day long learning how to do these videos and said “maybe I could use one of your songs to make a video for you. Using your artwork from your art book. Maybe you can use it on tour, to project it back while you’re performing.” I thought that’s a great idea. I sent him “Lies and Truth,” and he created this funny little film, with two-dimensional figures flying around left and right on this barren planet. Every night, I’d look at it, and I felt like there was a soul to what I was looking at, like a story, and I started to think about the characters.
It’s a little embarrassing, in a way, because I thought, “Well, maybe it’s just because I drew them. Maybe that’s my connection to them, to see them come to life in front of 2,000 people every night.” It just made me emotional or something. We started talking on the phone about it. Eventually, we said let’s not let’s not sell ourselves short here. Why don’t we write our own kind of Star Wars epic story about that one character?
We didn’t have names, we didn’t have a location or anything, but we loved the same kind of science fiction stories. The two of us are so different, yet we share that same fascination with the mythical story of a reluctant hero. What fate brings into his life, and how he gets thrust into trying to save all of the world, even though he just wants his girl and guitar, ultimately. And, just like you mentioned, we love Kurt Vonnegut. We started to put together all the things that we loved about science fiction. If we were going to write a story, and if we were going to call it “Crystal Planet,” what would it really be about, what would the core of the story be about and what would be the fun things to throw in there?
Just like a song where the album version is the final version, but the audience never gets to hear all the alternate versions that musicians worked out: The book Crystal Planet had so many different versions. All born out of the fact that we love science fiction. We wanted to throw in all these things that our favorite stories had. Part of it is the idea of being able to travel forward or backwards in time. Where is that other timeline? Is it happening right now with us, or in fact are you going backwards to another location in time?
It just took a long time. I was traveling around the world, touring. I would record musical cues for the animated show that never happened. We both believed that we should prepare for success. He wrote the novel version. We made comic book versions and animated show versions, and I recorded music for this show that never existed. And then eventually that clicked that we found an open door at Incendium and Heavy Metal.
In Crystal Planet, worlds and time are saved by music. Are there certain modalities that might work better for interstellar communication? Like, don’t tell jokes in lydian?
If you were trying to put together a film of Crystal Planet, where Satchel works as a scientist for this evil energy company, and he’s trying to use musical pitches to find an energy source within the planet, what he finds is something that is actually from another time. We thought about that, what would that sound like? Immediately you go: Well, this could be a stumbling block, because now you have to come up with a sound and people can relate it to a certain style. Is it going to be a natural organic instrument or is it going to be a synthesizer?
It’s like a space costume. Look at Star Trek, you see the Klingon outfit, and you gotta laugh. You gotta say: You mean to tell me that people light years away from here look exactly like us, except they’ve got a ruffled brow and extra hair or Vulcans have pointed ears. It’s just silly. But you realize that it comes down to production value. So, Ned and I had discussions about what sounds do we use to represent the thing that Satchel creates, that opens the portal to this other place, or time.
There is a scene from an early version of Crystal Planet where Satchel was working at the laboratory and he unwittingly opens up this portal to this place called Crystal Planet that he doesn’t know what it is yet. The swarm comes through, and it coincides with a pizza delivery guy who shows up in the lab, and the poor pizza guy gets eaten by the swarm.
To answer that question about what musical scale would be used to unlock the language of the universe, I think that that would be fun. As a guitar player, someone who makes albums, I want to spend every hour of every day coming up with a whole lexicon of sounds for that. But then, as a non-musician, and thinking in an intellectual sense, I go: Oh, how conceited is that? To think that aliens care at all about this thing we call music.
This is my reality check: Right now, there are creatures at the bottom of the ocean, and they don’t care about us, about religion, politics, music, artwork, nothing. And they’re doing just fine. As a matter of fact, there are more of them than there are of us. The planet itself has such diversity that never has a chance of interacting successfully. For us to think that we’re going to meet humanoids from a million light years away that are exactly like us, except they have pointy ears or ruffled brows, or little extra hair, it’s silly.
One last pet peeve I have about science fiction. They make all these aliens, like lizard people, who have claws instead of hands, and they can barely move. Yet, they’re flying in sophisticated spaceships that require incredible facility to design and operate. It just doesn’t make any sense. How could they even make their own clothes if they don’t have fine hands like humans? You have to suspend an enormous amount of belief. But that’s the way we are as humans, we like to imagine and play along and suspend reality for a moment so we can think outside of ourselves. I understand the purpose of it. But it is a funny thing.
One of my favorite films ever is Galaxy Quest. It’s so perfect, and one of the things I got right was to create aliens who couldn’t, because of the way that they are physically, possibly have built the ship that they’re in. I know that they were laughing while they did that.
Have you ever encountered any flying phenomenon that you couldn’t identify, besides things being thrown at the stage?
Unfortunately, I have never seen an Unidentified Flying Object. I’ve never been visited by aliens, ghosts or anything. I’ve looked at the sky at night and said “I’m here, come on. Open invitation.” I’ve never believed that aliens, the way that they’re depicted in science fiction, really do exist. The book The Demon Haunted World is basically about how human neurosis gets together and creates a new thing to be afraid of over time. There used to be lycans, fairies, gremlins, and once society moves on, they just vanished. Where do they go, you ask yourself? We project our fears collectively out in the world and it winds up being manifested in these imaginary creatures.
Carl Sagan got it right when he wrote if there were aliens, they would not look like us at all, or we may not even be able to perceive them because we only have these limited senses. There are things on this planet that have been living for millions of years, which don’t see the way we see, or that have a differing hearing range. What if there are aliens that exist, but we can’t hear or see them because it’s not part of the sonic or visual spectrum that body parts are able to perceive.
Of course, that doesn’t help with storytelling. We have to create things that we can see that can have dialogue. We make all of our aliens freaks of what we are, outgrowths of what we are. We keep getting these new images from further out in space, and there’s no McDonald’s out there. There’s nothing out there that remotely resembles what we live with day to day. That should remind people that it’s an unknown, uncharted, universe. We don’t know where it is or where we are, exactly, but certainly there are no fairies, gremlins, or little green men who live on planets made of cheese.
At least there are elephants on Mars.
Yes. We’ve written a story that, to me, has its root in today’s science. In the future, scientists of Earth figure out a way to terraform a planet like Mars, so after several hundred years it becomes livable. What they don’t count on is a little smart kid who decides to play around with genetics. He creates a trove, in a hidden area of the planet, where there are these gigantic sentient elephants.
They decide that the corporations of earth are out to rape the planet Mars. They want to keep Mars an independent garden planet. He gets together with a rock and roll revolutionary figure of the planet and they decide to revolt and make it serious, this independence from Earth. He gets together with the elephants, of course. The way they communicate is telepathically and with music, because it turns out the elephants also have these incredibly musical trunks.