cannot sit still. He never could. Even back during the Alcatrazz
days, he'd put himself through the wringer by double- and even triple-tracking solo sections to make them stand out more and give them more personality. Throughout his career, from his debut album, Passion And Warfare
, through his most recent live DVD, Where The Wild Things Are
, he has pushed the limits of guitar and composition. There isn't any guitar-related accolade he has not received his presence has graced the cover of every major instrumental magazine in the world; he regularly wins guitar polls; and most other players cite him as the gold standard of all things six-string and he has earned every one. No one works harder at his craft than Vai
To that end, he is also releasing a project called Naked Tracks
on CD. Whenever Steve
made an album, he always recorded mixes without lead guitar for his own benefit. He has now made these available for all would-be shredders.
UG: Whenever an artist comes out with a new record or some new project, they do the rounds of interviews and press. In a perfect world, would you avoid all of this if you could?
Elements of it. I don't mind doing interviews when the person who is interviewing me is aware of my catalog and is aware of my potential. They're aware of my new product and not just by reading the press release but actually have intelligent questions that are interesting to answer. And maybe silly and stupid questions too that aren't the same old questions, then it's nice. But most of the time unfortunately people ask the same old questions and that's OK. I'm very happy to try to lie to you as many ways as I can [laughs.]
When you revisited the songs for the Naked CD and you were listening to the various tracks, could you get any sense of who this guitar player Steve Vai was? In other words, did Passion and Warfare, for instance, have a sound and sensibility that struck you in a certain way all these years after the album was released?
I don't necessarily need the Naked tracks to see that because I make conscious decisions to evolve myself. The thing that's striking sometimes when I listen to the older stuff is how much work I put into it. And then I tell myself, Oh, boy, you've got to top this Vai. But when I was listening to the Naked tracks, that stuff was mixed way back when I had mixed the record and whenever I listen to those records, I'm listening to them with the guitar. And when I'm listening to the Naked tracks without the guitar, I'm hearing the infrastructure of the track and that's amazing really to hear my production overviews at the time. Even if you're not a fan of the Naked tracks, it's interesting to hear.
So all of those tracks still hold up for your years later? If you were going to remix Passion and Warfare today, you'd do it the same way you did back when the album was recorded?
There's no way I would ever remix it because as far as I'm concerned, it's perfect.
I meant theoretically that knowing what you know now about music and studios, you wouldn't change anything?
Yeah, absolutely. Not unlike a lot of artists where sometimes I look back at stuff in my catalog and there are certain things I would do differently. I would like to remix Real Illusions one of these days simply because the technology I was using at the time was sort of new and doesn't sound nearly as good as some of the stuff that is available now.
How would you then define Passion and Warfare all these years later?
"The thing that's striking sometimes when I listen to the older stuff is how much work I put into it."
It was a moment of freedom and liberation for me because I had let go of any career expectations and just made the music that was really trying to come out.
How do you see Sex & Religion?
After the success of Passion and Warfare, I wanted to create a contemporary metal record that involved a band and also a little more compositional depth than regular conventional metal. To a greater or lesser degree, I think I achieved that. But it was difficult to keep the band like that; it was unfortunate that I couldn't tour with that band.
In a perfect world and that band could have stayed together, do you think you'd still be playing with them?
Probably not for a lot of reasons. One is, Devin Townsend is so amazingly talented in his own right even back then when he was a young kid it was stifling for him. He needed to go and make the music that he makes. With me he was like a very colorful bird in a plain cage. And as far as the other guys go, you never know how things could turn out but I think even if it was tremendously successful, I probably wouldn't keep it because my color palette is too large to keep any one band for a long period of time.
Alien Love Secrets.
That holds a little warm spot in my heart because it was a very simple record to make and it was something I think a lot of the fans were really wanting. Stripped down, straight ahead trio rock guitar playing. And it was fun.
Fire Garden is one of my favorite records in that it was the return of sort of my compositional element. And a mixing of my simplistic rock side. You had things on there like Genocide and Little Alligator but then you had The Fire Garden Suite which are eons apart. That record, for me, was a very mature statement.
The Ultra Zone.
Sort of like more of the same of Fire Garden; maybe a little quirkier at times. There's something about that record, I like the way it sounds and there's some magnificent moments for me. The song Oooo and Lucky Charms and Windows to the Soul just enraptures me.
Alive in an Ultra World.
That's probably the most ambitious live record ever made. You know what? It's not probably the most, it is the most. It was an idea to create a live record of all new material where the songs were written based on the cultural music of various countries and then recorded in those countries or other countries. It was a tremendous undertaking and we did it and it hit the mark.
And finally, Real Illusions: Reflections.
That was a very revealing record. Real Illusions is a trilogy, a story; well, I should say, it's a whole concept and it involves three records and then an entire story that unfolds. And the infrastructure of which is my overview of reality and it's told through a story with characters and everything; it has comedy, intensity. It's an ongoing process and I feel as though if the stars are with me, it will be my life's work.
So we can expect future Real Illusions installments.
Oh, yeah; it's a three-part record and you can expect it as long as fate allows it.
We actually spoke back in 2005 when the Real Illusions record came out and you said, In the past, I've always put certain songs on the record because I thought people are expecting this or whatever. How does that translate in 2009?
Well, what people have come to expect is different. Because you know what happens with an artist is, there are a lot of different kinds of artists. And some of them are focused on capturing a particular genre and being great in pop or blues or jazz. And what happens is in a conventional setting where an artist comes along and they have a hit, they'll get a big audience. But then they have to maintain that status by having hit after hit and times change and the audience changes and it's really hard to maintain that kind of status. So what happens in some cases is they may have an initial splash and they'll gain a particular audience based on what they did, and not just the accessibility of what they did but the essence of the music has something that resonates in that audience. So when they go on to the next project, if they're very artistic people and they're actually doing something that's not just genre specific or for a particular purpose of capturing a pop audience or having a hit song, but what they're doing is artistic and creative, a particular segment of the audience is gonna find value in that and will follow that artist. And as that artist evolves, as long as that essence of what they do as an artistic person is prevalent, that audience will stick with them. So they're not bound to the expectations of the populace.
For instance, a lot of people think that Steve Vai is this virtuoso untouchable kind of guitar geek that just makes lifeless, flailing speed shredding music. You know what I mean? There's people that think that and to some degree that's true [laughs.] My music is very intense technically and some people hear it that way and so what? It's not everything that I do.
"My music is very intense technically."
What I do, as an artist, has a particular essence to it that's my inner musical voice. And as I evolve, the people who find value in that stick with it. So, when I say, I'm doing something that people are expecting, the fact is most people expect me to do an instrumental guitar track that sounds like, you know, Satriani, Jeff Beck, Yngwie Malmsteen you know what I mean? And I do that to a degree but by the same token I do Oooh and I do Fire Garden Suite and the list goes on and on and on; it's not just that. So in those pieces of music, there's the true essence of who Steve Vai is as an artistic creative person. So the fans who resonate with that, stick through it through thick and thin, and it doesn't matter if it's an instrumental guitar track or if it's, umm, [Alien] Love Secrets or Angel Food. They just want that essence.
So, I'm fortunate because there's enough of those people that warrant me sitting here talking to you today about my DVD.
You also told me back in 2005, It's 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. Are all of those elements presented on the Where the Wild Things Are DVD?
I make a conscious effort, every year, every record, every song, every time I play a song, every time I step on the stage, to evolve myself as a musician. And to strip off layer after layer of the exterior and make the expression more of the interior. And that can only come with time and experience and just going through life. So it's a never ending, beautiful process; it's a cathartic process.
It's a conscious effort of maturing. Somebody asked me the other, Don't you get tired playing For the Love of God'? And, No, I don't; not at all because every single time I got to play that song, I tell myself, You're gonna get deeper this time; you're gonna become more one with the notes; you're gonna be more in the moment of everything that you're doing; and you're going to become more of a conduit for the audience. And if you tell yourself these things and you approach them with that kind of an attitude, they just happen.
Sometimes when you specifically say to yourself, I'm going to push the limits, the exact opposite thing happens. You don't stretch yourself and what comes out sounds false or hollow.
Sure. I know for myself, I don't hit the mark all the time. And if I go to hit the mark ten times and I hit it once, I hit it. And if I go to hit it ten times and I hit it nine times, I hit. And if I don't hit it at all, it's a dry spell and I don't let it worry me and I don't care. This is out of context but I remember reading something that Kurt Cobain had said which people equate to the reason why he killed himself. Which was something to the effect of, There is no more life in the music for me. The sad part is if he woulda held on a little longer, there would have been because that kind of thing ebbs and flows; it comes and goes. I'm sure it was a lot more complicated than that, why a person would take their life. I don't mean to trivialize it.
I go through dry spells like anybody else but so what? It doesn't mean that I'm not gonna grow anymore. That's impossible. Obviously it's impossible to me to not grow at some point.
You knew that you were going to record that night at the State Theatre in Minneapolis. All the recording gear was set up and all the cameras and everything. Knowing all of that, is there an added pressure on you to really step up to the plate and just set the guitar on fire?
Well, at this point of the game after 30 years of doing it, I'm still very excited but I always keep this in my mind: If I don't like it, I won't release it. So, you know, I look forward to playing up to the camera. Look, I'm a ham; when I start performing, ham is cooking, buddy. I mean, there's times when I see that camera and I play into it. You see that a couple times on the DVD. But I just know if I don't like something, I'm gonna cut it out so I don't care. And if something is a disaster, I'll fix it.
You're joined onstage by violin players Alex DePue and Ann Marie Calhoun. Have you always wanted to play with violinists or could they have been sax players or some other instrument?
Well, one of the ideas I had long before this band was I'd like to construct a band one day that had two violin players; I wanted to construct a band one day that had two huge percussion sections. That would be really cool. And I would like to do a band one day that has like a 12-piece horn section. And then maybe do a band that has all of them. It's all up to budget and time and life expectancy.
Were you listening to Mahavishnu and the interplay between McLaughlin and Jerry Goodman? Was that an influence on you?
"I'm fortunate because there's enough of those people that warrant me sitting here talking to you today about my DVD."
Oh, yeah, I listened to that stuff when I was a kid; I loved that stuff. But it has nothing to do with what I do.
When the audience watches you on the live DVD, are you acting as musician and conductor? Are the other musicians watching you for cues the way you used to watch Zappa back in the day? Do you hear what the other musicians are playing and do you key off of them?
Well, as a performer that's part of an ensemble you have to take in the whole sound and all of the musicians and what they're doing. They have to be aware and there are times during the show where the focus changes where I'm not listening to them at all where they are doing their own thing. But for the most part the show is built on their complete focus on me because a lot of the show has subtle cues. I lead the way a lot with the melodies and stuff where they have to follow. So they need to be in the moment of what they're doing but they're aware of me and what I'm doing. And to that degree, I guess I'm a conductor but I don't sit there and wave a baton. Frank did that for a couple of songs. It was the same with Frank in the sense that although we were independent players that were listening to the band as a whole as we were performing, my eye was on Frank all the time. If he moved his eyebrow, I knew about it.
Your next project might be the continuation of the Real Illusions record?
Real Illusions is a real in-depth and intense project and whenever I go to record the next installment is gonna take a lot of time. So my focus right now is doing the marketing and the press and all for the DVD and get that out there. And then I'm working on remastering Flex-Able which is 25 years old wildly enough. And then I'm working on completing a whole slew of tracks that I'm gonna be putting up digitally one a month so I have some new product coming out. It's easy to do that these days; it's all stuff from the vault and cool soundcheck stuff. A lot of it is pretty straight ahead and some gorgeous stuff. I'm gonna be working on a new record and I'm hoping I can use this band. It has to do with everybody's schedules and whatnot. I have a great idea for capturing this band and the music I want to write for it. And then after that, it looks like in October of 2010, a Steve Vai festival with an orchestra, a symphony, in Holland, a five-day festival. And we're talking about me composing about 40 or 50 minutes of symphonic music. So if that goes down, I need to block out four months of undisturbed time next year. And then hopefully next year after the record comes out, I'll get on tour and I'll have a pretty extensive tour. I look forward to it; I really enjoy what I'm doing.
Interview by Steven Rosen