Steve Vai is looking tres sporty today, hair perfectly coiffed, chi chi sunglasses, the entire form fitting and fashionable ensemble screaming uber-cool. And for good reason. The guitarist is submitting to yet another photo shoot, this time in support of his seriously complex and wholly adventurous concept album, Real Illusions: Reflections. This is the introduction of what will eventually develop into a three-record odyssey somewhere down the road, a musical journey inhabited by characters ranging from the religious to the relentless, explorers and holy men and village idiots.
Even by Steve
’s own rigid standards, this is the most compelling and musically complex project he’s produced since his very earliest days as a solo artist. He has consciously tried to step outside himself by not allowing the music to be swayed by what might be commercial or, closer to home, what might be expected of him. Oh, certainly there are the whacked-out and melodic solo excursions, the blitzkriegs and cascades of glissando-like phrases, but there is so much more - talking guitars, the guitar as symphonic instrument, and vocals featuring a depth of emotion absent on prior albums.
During a brief respite in the shoot, Steve and his soul patch sit in one of the dressing rooms of this Hollywood photographic facility. Billy Sheehan, also there for the session, wanders in and out. This is the first album the pair have been reunited since 1988 and the release of David Lee Roth’s second solo album, Skyscraper. With fingers as long and tapered as candlesticks, the guitarist removes the shades and with a deep breath makes the transition from camera Steve to candid Steve.
“Originally I had this concept for this story which was a rock fable and it involved all these characters and a whole story line. I started to work on it and I wanted to get all these guest artists; I started to reach out to these guest artists and to my chagrin, not one of them was interested. And then I realized, 'Who the f--k do I think I am?’ And I went back to my concept of 'If you want it done, do it yourself, Vai.’ I thought it was going to be too laborious and that certain elements of the record and the story were conceptually being compromised. Because I felt I had to put an instrumental song here, I’ve got to do this, I’ve got to do that. So I put the concept on the shelf but then you start counting how many projects you’ve got left; I’m 44, and you think you do one project every two years, and I want to take advantage of every one. I decided to reintroduce the concept record into this project.
“In the past, I’ve always put certain songs on the record because I thought people are expecting this or whatever. And in the long run, they would just sound like filler. On this record, for all the songs I recorded for it, I just tore everything out that remotely conventional to me. I said, ’Vai, you have to do only what you’re hearing in your inner ear. You can’t fool around anymore, you can’t emulate anybody.’ And you know why? I don’t have to. I don’t need to sound like the radio or the new thing and as a result, I notice the audience of people that do like what I do, they’re not looking for me to sound like anybody but the thing they like about me. Besides Passion And Warfare, I feel this is the first record in a while where I really focused on that thing that is relatively cavalier within me when it comes to what the rest of the world thinks. I did not focus on my weaknesses, I focused on my strengths. It was a conscious growth and it’s made me so eager to continue to grow both on the guitar and as a composer and as a freak.
“It’s really only in the last four or five years, I’m really coming into my own as a guitar player. And it’s not all the pyrotechnics; it’s the phrasing, the wah-wah, where you put it and why; how you choke that note and what comes after it; and how deep you can get with one phrase. And I really feel on this record, if you’re into the kind of thing that I do, you’ll find things in here that are highly entertaining and interesting.”
Indeed, there is a plethora of weirdness here and it begins with the opening track, a piece built on ululating de-tuned guitars and a pastiche of synth lines. “Building The Church” is the segue into this fractured fairy tale but it’s important to remember that the concept of the story is more prevalent to the construction of the record than the nuances of the guitar. The guitar is the focus here, the cynosure, but it must be realized within the context of the story.
"’Building A Church’ is a particular vignette within the concept of the story that’s taking place. The riff is two-hand tapping with the left hand over on the neck. Very fast. I don’t know how I’m going to pull that shit off. Really the cool thing about that is, yeah, it’s got the rippin’ solo and those big fat rhythm guitars that just make you feel great and that mellifluous melody that soars on top of everything and when it cascades down on the Lydian thing, to me it’s so beautiful. I visualized the whole thing, this holy person is building this sort of living edifice, and it’s very metaphysical because it’s seen through the eyes of this other guy who is like a madman. So, as he’s building this church and pulling things from the ether and the abyss and all this crazy shit, that’s the music. That’s fine but now I need to make it interesting myself as a guitar player and so the harmonic structure of those hammers is not just a trick; if you listen to the way those chords move and the chords that cop it in the background, it’s very melodic and very cool.”
Vai has stretched the limits of his bizarre canvas to even include the melodic, if sometimes anharmonic, orchestration of classical instruments. “Lotus Feet” is derived of a guitar melody that pushes and pulls with the tenebrous and murky feel of the Far East, the gentle footfalls of a troupe of Geisha girls upon the sweet Oriental streets. This central theme is performed with no small amount of articulation, a necessity in focusing the sound and the lines as the six-string acts as the main solo instrument against the orchestral backdrop. This performance, one of trio recorded live in Holland with the Metropole Orkest, is a startling example of how seamlessly the howls of an electric might marry themselves to the purrs of the acoustic.
“It’s very difficult to make an electric guitar sound good with an orchestra but that song is completely suited for it. I had to really work at it. Some people are born doing it but I had to really work at it to become those notes. When you’re in the moment of it, that’s when it happens, that’s what it’s all about.
“The timbres. I don’t know if the classical community would allow the word legitimate when you’re relating to an electric guitar but because I feel I understand the orchestra and the guitar, I was able to blend the guitar in with the orchestra and make it sound like an organic thing. I would love to do more of that in the future, melding those things together, because I feel like I know how to do it appropriately. And in all due respect to most musicians that do that, I have never heard an electric guitar sound good with an orchestra.
“I needed something with more of a singing guitar melody, like a Carlos Santana thing. I remember the first time I heard Europa, 'Earth’s Cry Heaven’s Smile’ when I was a kid. It stunned me into silence, it was like the voice of God; the guy was completely and utterly in the moment of every f--kin’ note. [And] maybe Uli Jon Roth, he did it pretty good; everybody else sounds like a rock band with an orchestra.”
An abundance of notes here are plucked on a Roland guitar synthesizer. The above-mentioned “Building A Church” and the eldritch elements of “Dying For Your Love.” The device “speaks very well” and Vai rolled it out these selections where the instrument triggered its own samples; elsewhere, it housed MIDI information meant to trigger external samples. In this fashion, the sound bends naturally with the guitar.
“Pretty macabre, huh? Once I started listening to it, it was so compellingly odd, the way the melody works on those chords and the lyrics and the way it fits into the story. With something like this, first I had a concept that I needed to fulfill. I had this particular part of the story that needed a song. So I went up to the Korg keyboard and I just hit this key and this really cool drumbeat came out - boom cheche boom cheche - and I had a microphone and a little DAT player and I just started singing the melody. And then I transcribed the melody, tweaked it a little bit and put it over that ostinato. And my brain, the way it works musically, it hits that big bottom and it’s all G and there was all this open space. So every chord you hear with that G in the bass creates a completely different atmosphere. And the lyrics are onomatopoetic to the chords. Do you know what I mean? The way I sung it, I was being very vulnerable and very intense and using falsetto that I’ve never used before. It’s always been there, it’s just taken me a long time to decide to show it.
“The melody notes go along with what’s being said; if it’s relatively intense, the chords are relatively twisted. If it’s something of a very light nature, then the chords are light. And in the chorus, the melody is very simple. But the climbing of the background chords, it’s all about tension and release.”
The main recording configuration was the EVO guitar with Vai’s Carvin signature series amplifier, a 100-watt fitted with clean/overdrive channels, effects loop, and Celestion greenback speakers. To achieve different sounds and textures, the guitar was filtered through various miking techniques and mixed with various effects and EQs
The antithesis of this, a basic and primal tone, is exemplified in the very frangible sound of “K’m-Pee-Du-Wee.” This embodies that virgin and elemental Hendrix Strat strain, a woody and natural texture, and is produced simply by placing the EVO in the neck position pickup and plugged directly into a Legacy amp. In a strange way, though Steve is known for his zany tremolo bar calisthenics and the berserk and atavistic multi-fret stretch pulloffs, techniques normally performed with Carvins screaming and guitar screwed up to 10, the unadorned effect here is what he deems most representative.
“That’s about as Vai as you can get, that tone. That Lydian thing. That’s the EVO [built by Ibanez and his main guitar since the Sex & Religion period], no distortion pedals, there’s a little delay on it, but directly into the Legacy with a mike and neck position. Period.”
Vai has managed to morph the electric guitar into an instrument capable of doing more than simply shooting out fusillades of supercharged solos and chunking out innominate blocks of chunky rhythm. In a very complex and tricky step forward, one few players ever negotiate, the ex-Zappa alum has passed beyond the normally accepted restrictions of this ultimately simplistic collection of wood and wire to extract from it puissant and mysterious secrets she so reluctantly surrenders. Pete Townshend understood, with masterful insight, how the guitar manifested atmosphere inside a track, bestowed upon the work a sense of urgency or fragility or a dolorous and woeful aspect. And he oftentimes created this effect in one single passage. Of course, it had to do with what he played but it was the juxtaposition of notes against chords - or chords against notes. Seemingly, we’re merely describing harmonic content and for the most part, we are. We all deal with the same vocabulary - it’s just how you string the sounds together. A listen to the intro of Tommy’s “Pinball Wizard” reveals a series of close-voiced chords each sharing a common B passing note; the effect is at once lugubrious, something almost sorrowful, but we’re similarly uplifted and invigorated by the section. This is guitar as barometer, checking which way the wind blows and the amount of pressure in the air. It’s a devastatingly simple series of chords but the resultant effect upon the listener is mesmerizing.
Jimmy Page gave life to what he termed the “Guitar Army,” placing instruments in strategic parts of the track and having little or nothing to do with solos or central melodic themes or vertical rhythmic strum. An impercipient phrase bounces around a couple of repeated notes mixed hard right, while a barely discernible strum floats somewhere just left of center of the stereo spectrum may be all that’s needed.
Vai has arrived at this place; Steve understands the concept.
“'Achilles Last Stand. I did the same thing with 'Under It All.’ The vocal melody in that completely copies the chordal thing. It’s just like a beautiful open book when you start composing and you’re not worried about anything. When I see the audio real estate, on 'Midway Creatures’ [for instance], one of my favorite things to do is to imagine all that. I know how frequencies will relate and parts; so you can listen to that song and though there’s a lot of shit going on, I strive to not make it sound like a mess. In order to make an instrument breathe in the stereo spectrum, you’ve gotta be careful with what you surround it with. That’s why Led Zeppelin sounded so big because Page’s guitars were never too big, they weren’t festooned with distortion. If you solo the drums on a Motley Crue record, you’ll hear this unbelievably big and beautiful drum sound. But then at the end of the day when you put all these sounds on everything, it’s just this huge wash.
“One of my favorite parts of the whole record is the outro of that song; there’s this melody that I do that is so acrobatic [sings the descending line] and you don’t just play that stuff. I had to think how I can get the guitar to sound like it’s really talking but keeping within the notes, you know? And if you listen to those last few riffs, to me it sounds like it’s speaking to you.
“[So], you’re not thinking about accessibility or radio or record companies. It’s like, 'How much courage do you have?’ Frank [Zappa] worked like this; he marched to the beat of his own drummer. He would tell you, 'Well, now I’ve got to make a rock record, so that I can afford to do my classical music.’ But, he only ever did what he wanted.”
And certainly Zappa is present in “Freak Show Excess,” a song rife with odd time signatures and voluminous and exaggerated guitar riffs. The ghost of Frank is here, but circuitously, a passenger on the Eastern European Train Of Souls.
“That song is more of a reflection of my love for Bulgarian wedding music. Ivo Papasov. The Bulgarians have a completely unique musical sensibility; 4/4 is very odd to them. They can double each other on a clarinet, these tremendously fast lines, and put grace notes in front of every single note. They don’t think anything of outlining a major chord over a minor chord but they make it work. It’s like using b9s, whenever I can get away with using a b9 and making it sound cool, I do. And there’s a lot of them on this record. But it takes work and if you’re not careful, it just sounds like a big mistake.
“And I said, 'I’ve gotta do this on the guitar.’ If you listen to the solo in that song, it’s a very unique phraseology for the guitar and I worked very hard on it. The phrasing speaks totally differently than anything you’ve heard from me in the past. It’s all about articulation, making that one note sharp and the other notes bent and where to do these fast slides between notes.
“I recorded the drums and then I got Billy on there and he’s kicking major ass. That’s one of my favorite parts of the record. And when I put the melodies on it, I wanted a very thin sound because I didn’t want to get in the way [of the bass].”
Billy has, in a serendipitous moment, strolled by the room where Steve is holding court and, hearing his name uttered, jumps in on the conversation. Vai momentarily walks away for a wardrobe fitting.
“That song was so tough, I actually videotaped my fingers playing it so later on in the studio I could look at the video to see how the hell I actually did it. It was one of the toughest things I’ve ever recorded. Bar far. Because it’s a real Steve Vai proprietary guitar lick and I don’t do that, I’ve got a different thing that I do. So, to learn that, I really had to kinda jump in to what he did and then I had to adapt it for bass. Because on guitar, some things bend and move a lot easier than they do on bass. That was a real challenge to do and I had to rise to it. Pretty interesting.
“If he hears me say this it’s OK, but Steve is a real precision guy and when he puts things together it’s done with a vision and perfection I don’t see to often in other records. That’s why his records sound the way they do because everything is put together exactly the way he wants it. It’s a real art form in itself.”
As if Steve’s entire life is a choreographed routine, pieces set in motion to exacting standards, he returns. And, as if on cue, continues unabated where he last left off. Billy exits for a cup of coffee.
“Those [sitar] melodies were carefully constructed to complement what he was doing and what the drums were doing. So the melody came way later and I do that a lot; I don’t just go in there and jam the shit out. Bar by bar and listening in my head what to do. You think I could jam that stuff? Improvise that shit? Shit, if I could I’d be as good as some people think I am.
“I play everything on the record except the drums and the bass. I’d like to keep that a bit of a secret, though. Dave’s [Weiner, second guitarist] gonna have to end up playing it live, and Tony [MacAlpine], too, all that stuff; I credited them on the record as the band. Don’t be so impressed; I type everything into the computer; I can’t play. I’ll tell you something and I don’t mean to sound pretentious, but since I was a kid I think first and foremost I wanted to be a composer. I can really see instruments. I can’t even play a Beatles song on the piano but in my mind’s eye I know what a pianist can and can’t do.”
In many respects, Steve Vai has finally found the voice and sense of character that has maybe eluded him these past years. Real Illusions: Reflections is the reification of this composer, educated musician, fusion/rock player, transcriber, and producer, a body of music bestowing on him the sense of who he is and what he should be. Electric guitar playing, and the business of the art, is a proactive pursuit; you breathe life into a work that has meaning for you, creator. Trying to conceive of a work you feel will impact an audience is a losing proposition, the dog chasing its own tail. And even worse, the canine catching up with his rear-extending fifth limb, chomping down on it and ultimately devouring himself. Steve is tired of running in circles and trying to decipher the illusion of this public persona. There is no more fantasy, imagining who he thinks his audience wants him to be. The illusion is gone and now the face in the mirror - on the CD cover, in magazine photos, on concert stages - reflects exactly what he sees. And what he wants his fans to see.
“I listen to Tom Waits, my favorite artist, but his style of music isn’t for everybody. But the people who love it, really love it. And it’s like that for Britney Spears, and Michael Jackson, and it’s like that for Marilyn Manson. And it’s like that for Steve Vai. There are people who respond to it. So I feel it’s my duty as an artist to do my best to create the thing that’s most unique for me for people who get a kick out of it.
“How do I fit in? In some people’s minds, I don’t. Some people will scratch their heads and go, 'That wanker from the 80s, is he still making records?’ But there are people that find some of the stuff I do vital and I think it’s when I’m being very honest with myself. I’m offering something they’re not getting someplace else. And I’m very grateful for that and I think it’s what any artist is here for.
“It’s a real awakening for me because it’s led me to appreciate everybody’s contribution more and more and understand their contribution. And not criticize it. I remember, it’s funny, I was reflecting on something when I finished this record, that you asked me years ago. After The Downward Spiral came out and Trent [Reznor] was really tearing it up, I listened to that record and was very blown away. And you said, 'Do you wish you would have made that record?’ And I forget my response but some part of me was probably saying, 'Yeaaaaahhh, man, that’s a cool record, I wish I made that record.’ But when I listen to Real Illusions, there isn’t a record in the world that I would trade for that record.”
Steven Rosen (c) 2005.