|Whether it is the personification of Jack Butler, the Crossroads demonically inspired virtuoso, the role as Frank Zappa's legendary protégé and music transcriptionist, stints with renowned bands such as Alcatrazz , Whitesnake and David Lee Roth, or the symbolic cartographer for Ibanez guitars, Steve Vai is nothing if not a musical chameleon and virtuoso. He along with Satriani, Eric Johnson, and Yngwie Malmstein have taken the art of the axe to an almost unbelievable level inspiring six string slayers and stylistic shredders across the globe. As an artist few travel in the same realm as Vai and as a producer, composer, philanthropist, Steve Vai has truly become the Rock Renaissance man.|
Following on the heels of his much acclaimed DVD "Where the Wild Things Are", Vai is as driven as ever and pulling out more tricks from his guitar case than one can possibly imagine.
Recently I had the opportunity to catch up with Steve and find out what makes this mastermind tick like an amplified human metronome and what else he has up his sleeve for the future musical world.
Kim: Your beginning in music is notably rooted in your association with Frank Zappa...Zappa has been taken very seriously as a composer, and a musical Renaissance man what did you walk away with from that experience other than writers cramp from notating the infamous "black page" and Stevie's Spanking?
|One of the great things about art is there is no real judgment you know? Because if it feels right to you and it excites you, that's the important thing|
Steve Vai: (chuckling) Well, when you think about it when I started working with Frank I was 18 years old and then I joined the band when I was 20 so when you think about what your consciousness was like when you 20, to all of a sudden be working with Frank, you know it was exciting and challenging. But, it wasn't challenging in the way as a lot of people might think. For me it was really applying the music and being on top of everything Frank was giving me, that wasn't a problem, I enjoyed it very much and I worked 24/7 on it-what was difficult for me was that I was totally inexperienced with touring and how to take carry yourself on tour and I just didn't have a good constitution–I just learned a lot about the road and about being a professional. One of the things I took away from Frank most was how he would make his music in the face of any kind of adversity. He didn't care what anybody said, or if there was anything going on or if anybody told him he could or couldn't do anything- he did what he wanted –you know -he marched to the beat of his own drummer. He was a very good business man, he protected his intellectual property- and he got paid fair value for his work. And I learned all this—he was very honest too.
Kim: At the end of the day, do you consider yourself a rock guitarist?
Steve Vai- Yeah I do- you know rock music has always been my favorite form of music and you know a lot of people get hung up on putting tags on themselves---"oh my music isn't this and it isn't that"...well I wouldn't necessarily say my music is jazz or classical or anything like that but if I had to pick a particular genre I'd say it's more rock than anything else. It just keeps things clarified to say I am a rock guitarist. But, you know everybody has their own take, I've been called everything from a Mongolian string bender from the 80's to one of the best kept musical secrets !
Kim: You have become a cultural and musical icon...can you tell our readers what inspires you creatively?
Steve Vai: Well the thing that inspires me the most is a good idea. You know, when you're just working or walking about or just doing, or minding your own business and suddenly an idea just comes to you. And a lot of time, and we all do it, we all thrive on the feeling of creative accomplishment. One of the great things about art is there is no real judgment you know? Because if it feels right to you and it excites you, that's the important thing.
What excites me the most is when I get an idea of what I feel is somewhat unique to other ideas that I have had. I hear it in my head, I hear it finished. That becomes such a compelling thing that I become consumed with it...I become obsessed with completing a particular thought and its not unlike a lot of other artists and creative people and you just thrive on the sense of accomplishment. You know the unique idea is really the juice! Where they come from, I don't know. People try to explain where their inspiration comes from and I can site things or situations in my life or certain things I like that are inspirations for certain ideas, but the point where the melody comes to your head and it is an unique thought..I really don't know where it comes from...perhaps the greatness of creative juice.
Kim: "Where the Wild Things Are" shows you deep in your element of performance, art, humor, conducting and musicianship... What clicked with you creatively to put such a dynamic ensemble and art piece together?
Steve Vai: Well there's various band permeations I am interested in exploring one of them is with three percussionists, one is with 12 horns and one was with a couple of violins. This was a perfect opportunity to do the violins. I had just come off of a record that was a double live orchestra record. I thought well, originally I kicked it off with one violin player and then Ann Marie Calhoun sent me this demo and I was so blown away that I had to get her in the band. It was really a wonderful opportunity to be able to be able to orchestrate some pieces from my catalogue with the violins because my music is kind of compositional. So, it allows me a lot of re-orchestration possibilities and since there is so many flailing guitars all over the place, those kinds of lines sound great on violin- especially if the violin has some distortion on it, and its got someone who really knows how to wield it so those two players were just so amazing and it was just a great opportunity to be able to create these harmonies and stuff that were just lashing all over the place.
Kim: Watching the video, it was obvious that the band was on top of their game.
Steve Vai: Yes, we rehearsed for one full month for between 12 and 15 hours a day. I gotta hand it to the band, they had so much patience; they really studied those parts, and knew that when you go out there, you gotta own it! You can't fake that stuff. It didn't even really dawn on me, and I don't mean to sound pretentious, how beautiful the band was, I didn't lift my head up until I was watching the DVD in a theater in Hollywood at the premier...and up to that point everything was preparation. Orchestrating the music, writing it out for every body, finding the band, all the logistics that go into getting a rehearsal place, and paying for it, going through the rehearsals and scheduling the tour dates, getting on tour, arranging the filming of everything and once that was done, and so I was always looking at the next step...so when it came time to edit it and mix it, it was unbelievably this big job, you know? It took like a year...and it was never quite done...because then after I mixed it and I watched it, I wanted to fix the color and that took weeks and weeks and weeks...and then finally I was getting test discs. We were testing Blu Ray up until the day it was shown at the theater, and that's when I had the final Blu Ray and that's when I finally watched it and I think it was during "Angel Food" and I thought holy shit, this is really amazing...this is like –so pushing my buttons because that piece of music was normally just guitar and piano and I had re-orchestrated everything for violin and guitar and whole band and I were so happy with the way it came out. All the time that you're in rehearsals and on the stage playing, you're not listening to it you're just focusing on keeping and staying in the mentality of the ensemble ...and then when you're sitting in a theatre watching it, it finally hit me ..I was thinking just how lucky I am to have this, and create it ...and have the opportunity to sit here.
Kim: The video had to be a huge chapter in your "sonic scrapbook"?
Steve Vai: Yeah, well it's like every record you make is a sonic scrapbook!
Kim: As a business man, you have introduced the concept of Vai Tunes and you have Favored Nations, kind of a build it and they will come philosophy--tell us about these projects?
Steve Vai: It's a very simple mentality that actually started when I started working with Frank. I just felt that if you want to do something, you really have to do it yourself and anyone that is relying on anyone else to do it for them was being foolish. There's great people in the industry that are there to do their job but you have to initiate it, you have to have the vision, move forward and surround yourself with the right people. You just can't expect someone to do that for you. When it comes time to booking a tour for example, I don't book the tour myself...I rely on good people to do it and I try to find those good people to do it, and I have a fantastic manager that I have been with for many years , Ruta Sepetys and she does a lot –but I initiate it...you know what I mean? I initiate getting a good manager and working with the manager and looking ahead to the next thing. I knew with the kind of music I wanted to make I knew that radio wasn't going to play it, it wasn't going to be on MTV, or on the cover of Rolling Stone, but still, I knew there was an audience for it because there's an audience for everything.
Back in the early days, when I made my first solo record, when I saw what conventional record deals were like it was a no brainer. Basically this is unfair, this is bizarre and I'm not doing it...what should I do? And a lot of people feel if they can't get a record deal they can't make a record, but there are more than ten ways to make a record and get it out into the world! So I just did some research and I'm very resourceful and I discovered a record company uses a distributer and a marketing team so I just hired my own people. And I had my own little label back then and I released my record and it was a wild success even back then.
Kim: Sometimes you have to build your own destiny.
Steve Vai: Yeah, that's right you really need to! Through the years, and when I was with these other bands and I was a participant vs. an independent and I was signed to Sony for many years and they had a lot of muscle and I did a lot of good projects with them and even though I was still independent in my own right, I was still working with a major. I knew that it takes a lot of energy to run a label and do everything yourself...so I started Favored Nations 12 years ago just to kind of like um, create a forum for very artistic people I feel have all the elements and are great at what they do, with LA Guns that was, after all these years, more of a launch of a rock /metal thing which I plan on cultivating. I enjoy it, a lot of people have a lot to say about the music business but it's been really good to me and it's a great industry really. There's a lot of creative people and it's like any other industry where you have to be careful with whom you are working with and what you are doing.
Kim: So obviously we know that many of our readers want to know about the guitar nuts and bolts, so we have a guest interviewer if you will, a guitarist who is going to pick your brain a bit on equipment, guitars and sound. Jon- Steve Vai, Steve Vai- Jon Epstein...
Steve Vai: Cool- Hi Jon!
JON: Hey Steve—this is a great opportunity for us to get technical for a moment...you are associated with state of the art audio gear and affects , for example the Jem and yet your guitars are basically old school, and have passive pick ups vs active...what it is it about the basic electric guitar that appeals to you?
Steve Vai: Well when I was a teenager I was in love with the Strat because it had a whammy bar and when I sat down with it, it felt really good in my lap. But as I musically matured my vision of what I wanted to do on the instrument was changing. I had some idiosyncratic ways of playing that the conventional guitar just really didn't fulfill. So back in 1986 I started to morph my guitars. I just applied a practical mentality to it. I've got big hands so I had a cutaway made that was much bigger than on a conventional Strat. A conventional Strat has 22 frets, I wanted 24. There weren't a lot of guitars back then that had 24 frets and a whammy bar, you know? I wanted to have a very specific pickup configuration with a combination of single coils and humbuckers with a five position switch that would split coils and all of that was very unique, and back then the Floyd Rose tremolo bar would only go in one direction I took a screwdriver and a hammer carved out the wood of the guitar so I could go both directions.
Then there were just a couple of practical applications like the location of the input jack, getting rid of one of the tone controls. This became a guitar that was very suited to my way of playing, but you couldn't buy anything like it. I had this store in Hollywood making me these guitars. Then when I joined Dave Roth's band every guitar manufacturer in the world wanted me to play their instruments.
My big question was: Why would I play a guitar that wasn't suited to my style? So I said "If you guys want to make this guitar, I'll play that." I gave them all the specs and quite a few companies made me guitars, and most of them just weren't any good. But Ibanez came back in two weeks with a flawless instrument, which I haven't changed since and it's 23 years old. Those guitars (The Ibanez RG, which is based on the Vai designed Jem) are second only to the Stratocaster in total sales worldwide. But for me it was just a practical thing to come up with it.
JON: You are rightly associated with the introduction of the 7 string guitar into American rock music and yet the number of 7 string players remains limited to extreme genres, what is it about the 7 string that prevents it going more main stream?
Steve Vai: The Ibanez Universe was the first production model 7 string guitar in history, and the Jem is the longest running signature series guitar. I think the issue with the 7 string is that most people are simply attracted to the conventional, while fewer are attracted to the unconventional. So when you are choosing a guitar most people will go for the six string instead of the 7 string because that 7th string represents a big question mark. But, for example, when the whole nu-metal movement happened, they look at it and said "Aha! I know what I'm going to do with that 7th string!"
JON: If you could only have three pieces of gear what would they be?
Steve Vai: Three pieces of gear? Wow. It would be my "Evo" (Vai's Jem Prototype), a pencil, and manuscript paper. A pencil with a whole lot of lead!
Jon: Thanks Steve for indulging our inner guitar geek!
Steve: No problem...!
Kim: So, Speaking of bees...you have been known to be quite the bee enthusiast...are you still harvesting honey and what else does Steve Vai do for fun?
Steve Vai: (laughing) Well, you know I've been approached to have a reality TV series, you know where they follow you around with a camera and you know I always refuse because I would be so boring for people! There's no real drama in my life really! Knock wood!
I started with the bees because we bought this property that was vacant for ten years before we bought it and everything was dead. Fruit trees and gardens and such and I did some research and I discovered that honey bees are fantastic for pollinating. So, I called a local beekeeper and he explained to me how to do it and I got some books, and its an easy hobby, the bees do all of the work and you get a lot of honey!
Kim: And besides that the beekeeper uniform is pretty cool?
Steve Vai- Yeah and you get to wear stylish outfits! But as far as other hobbies...I like to spend time with my family, my boys and I have been with the same woman for 32 years, hang out with friends, but as far as hobbies...well you know I like architecture. I like to design things. Homes, like we did a remodel on our home an I did the whole thing myself on a CAD program, built a studio for myself...see I told you BORING!!
Kim: Well at least you have a fall back career if this whole guitar "thing" doesn't work out! (laughing)
Steve Vai: Well it's too late for that! It's worked out already! (laughing)
Kim: You have and continue to influence guitarists and musicians world wide...who influences you?
Steve Vai: Well you'd be surprised. Umm, when I was young growing up as a teenager I was into all that cool progressive 70's stuff...Led Zeppelin was really big for me. I took lessons from Joe Satriani, and he was always a big influence and he's always been a mentor. I liked all that Brian May, Ritchie Blackmoore--players like that--Jeff Beck. But these days the music I listen to is totally different. I love Tom Waits. He's my favorite artist, I don't go anywhere without his entire catalogue and more often than not if I have a chance to listen to music, I listen to him. But I'm also in to new things, especially metal and rock because my kids are into that and there's certain classical composers that I like. I listen to Luciano Bario, his stuff really blows me away because I understand composition and composition allows you to really get into the personality and nuances of the creator. When you compose you have control over so many elements, and when I listen to people like Luciano Bario and György Ligeti and Stravinsky, Mahler and Edgar Varèse I really enjoy that stuff, it really moves me.
Kim: And those are some impressive composers!
Steve Vai: Yeah, but then like my kids came home with the new Gorillaz record, and I just thought it was a great record!
Kim: So what are the future plans for Steve Vai?
Steve Vai: Well I'll be going to London doing a Master Class in November. I've got a pretty intense schedule this fall. I'm going to be kicking off a four day Steve Vai Festival in Holland where two of the days are going to be with the Holland Symphony Orchestra. So right now until October most of my days are spent composing for that. Then after that I go into the first rehearsal for an Experience Hendrix tour and I am very excited about participating in that and then right from that I go to London, to do another clinic and then my studio will be finished and I start recording and go on tour next year .
Kim: Any final thoughts for our readers?
Steve Vai: You know I just thought of a fun hobby I have...it's kind of silly...We have this white picket fence (laughing), and I built this picket fence and I put 5 pieces of wood across it and I painted it white and my wife planted these roses and the roses are all different colors and when they grow, the roses look like musical notes, like they are on staff paper. So I take pictures and I transcribe it and sometimes it's bizarre and sometimes you can get some interesting melodies out of it.
Kim: Wow, Steve that sounds like a major undertaking and a really unusual hobby!
Steve Vai: Well I call it "Fret Stuning"...(laughing) (AAM: as in "Festooning"? Steve- ‘Yeah!") But, forgive me I didn't really answer your last question...obviously thank you for the support, check out Vai Tunes which is a cool concept I am working on and if you're interested in this kind of thing, stick with it--- its only going to get better!
Kim: And that you can count on! Thanks for your time Steve!
Steve Vai- Thanks Kim and Jon!
By: Kim Thore with Jon Epstein
Special thanks to Sean Carpenter at Favored Nations and Ruta E. Sepetys at SEG Inc.
For more information on Steve Vai you can go to www.vai.com