The Tough Question: How Do You Name Instrumental Songs, Joe Satriani?
Really, how do you name any song? There are conventions in pop music (commercially driven, of course) where acts parrot the hook, the chorus, in the title. “Umbrella, -ella, -ella…” Makes sense from a branding perspective, if not because the chorus is the most meaningful part of the narrative.
This sort of thing is good enough for instrumental post-rock bands too, but faux-profundity usually trumps self-satisfied quips. Enough classical music, evolving over hundreds of years, referred to the style and key of the music or the mythic literature that inspired it. So does much hifalutin vocal-free jazz. But it’s fascinating to listen to a lyric-less song differently under the title ‘Yinxianghechengqi’ (by Chicago post-rockers Tortoise) or ‘Wall Street’ (by New York math-prog trio Battles).
Melbourne instrumental post-rock band International Karate titled an album Weapons Of Mass Protection, which made them unlikely in that they were a band with no words but a political agenda, drummer Aaron Pepper shrugging to me during an interview “apparently we’re doing it through an album title.”
Another mostly-instrumental Melbourne act Love Of Diagrams told me that titles tend to originate from wordplay and visual art. Guitarist Luke Horton said, “They used to be called ‘The Fast One’ and ‘The Slow One’ until we’d write another fast one or slow one so we had to settle on something.”
Their song ‘Tiger Pancakes’ was based on the pre-PC children’s story Little Black Sambo about tigers chasing the protagonist around a palm tree faster and faster until they’re whipped into butter. Then the mother turns it into pancakes. Luke explained, “It was really relevant to that song in particular because it’s really fast and goes round and around in a pattern.”
American guitar virtuoso and idol to spotty manchildren for over three decades, Joe Satriani, has written thirteen instrumental albums and earned fifteen Grammy nominations (but, amazingly, no wins). His album titles range from 1995’s bemusing Joe Satriani featuring the tune ‘Luminous Flesh Giant’, all the way up to 2008’s loopy Professor Satchafunkilus and the Musterion of Rock, home to ‘Diddle-Y-A-Doo-Dat’.
So, while talking to him about his 3D concert film Satchurated: Live In Montreal, I took the opportunity to ask the man who has written hundreds of songs and no lyrics, how do you title your songs?
“Most of the songs are written about experiences with people and places,” the fleet-fingered, softly-spoken guitar hero muses, “They have titles as I start to write. It’s something that I’m hooked into right from the beginning.”
He talks about a landmark title track ‘Flying In A Blue Dream’ from his 1989 Billboard Top 25 album. “It just came into my head, the memory of having flying dreams as a child,” he explains, so he focused on the feeling and wrote the song in a few minutes.
“It’s not that important to me that people know the experience, because it is instrumental music and I want people to be able to own it in their own way. If someone hears ‘Flying In A Blue Dream’ and it feels like a happy song or a sad song or a spiritual song or something they like to listen to when they’re snowboarding, that’s up to them, that’s the freedom that I give them to associate to the song in any way. But for me, it’s very important to stay true to the original inspiration so that I can play specifically to that song.”
“I think to be a good instrumentalist you can’t be general,” he declares. “You can’t be yourself playing the same old thing over every song. That only works when you’re in a rock band, where the singer is singing different lyrics to every song and when it comes to your guitar break you can do your little ‘identity’ thing. It doesn’t really matter very much because the song’s got lyrics which are telling people what the song is about.”
“The instrumental is different because it suffers from not having lyrics,” he offers, “so you have to be very descriptive with the way that you play. Every song you treat with kid gloves, so to speak. What helps me do that is to lock into that story right at the very beginning and focus on that title.”
Do lyrics stymie people’s appreciation of the music because the lyrics dictate a story in people’s head? Can lyrics actually distract from the mood of the music?
“For thousands of years there’s been instrumental music in all genres,” he says, “We could take the big block of four or five hundred years of classical music as an example. Even with people who don’t understand Italian, with opera, they’re free to associate with what the music is about. You’re just letting the music wash over you and projecting your own meaning to it. That is the strength of instrumental music.”
“I can tell you as a songwriter over the years, you can really ruin a good musical idea with bad lyrics,” he chuckles.
He talks about the song ‘Bigfoot’ by his Chickenfoot project with Sammy Hagar and Michael Anthony from Van Halen and Red Hot Chili Pepper drummer Chad Smith. He titled it because the song sounded as imposing as the fabled woodland giant, but Hagar’s lyrics turned it around to describing a driver’s ‘big foot’ on the gas pedal, racing to his girlfriend’s house.
You can hear a wry tone in Satriani’s voice as he notes, “It takes a lyricist’s frame of mind to really come up with a story like that.”
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