Hit The Lights: Steve Vai: 'Don't Worry About Anything, And Play No Matter What'

artist: Steve Vai date: 06/05/2009 category: interviews
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Hit The Lights: Steve Vai: 'Don't Worry About Anything, And Play No Matter What'
In its brief life thus far, Hit The Lights has been fortunate enough to interview respected virtuoso guitarists such as Joe Satriani and Paul Gilbert. Yet again, the series can add another worthwhile addition to that list. Twenty-five years have elapsed since the issue of "Flex-Able" (1984), and since that time, the career of Steve Vai has ventured from strength to strength. Beyond the usual slew of interviews arranged to promote new material, having the opportunity to hear a respected musician share his opinions in such depth is a rare one. Indeed, Vai's feelings might supply food for thought to budding guitarists in pursuit of the next chapter within their musical career. From 11th-14th June at the ExCel Exhibition Centre, the London International Music Show '09 will take place. Beginning at 11:00 GMT and concluding at 14:00 GMT on the 13th and 14th respectively, "Alien Guitar Secrets", a three-hour seminar from Steve Vai, will take place. Limited to one hundred and fifty places per seminar, both are sold out. As part of the seminar, Vai will introduce himself, and touch upon the importance of short and long term goals, as well as basic guitar playing concepts and music theory. Also, Vai will stress the merits of finding and cultivating your own uniqueness, and will engage in a discussion regarding the music business. Towards the seminar's conclusion, a few attendees will have the opportunity to jam with the axeman, "Alien Guitar Secrets" being rounded out by a question-and-answer session, as well as a meet and greet / autograph / photo session. Later in June, Vai's "Alien Guitar Secrets"' seminars will be conducted in Portugal, Spain, the Netherlands, Switzerland and Germany. Other happenings in the world of Steve Vai include a forthcoming twenty-fifth anniversary edition release of debut solo album "Flex-Able" and forthcoming live DVD "Where The Wild Things Are", not to mention plans to record a seventh full length solo album. On 13th May at 21:00 GMT, Hit The Lights' Robert Gray telephoned Steve Vai at his Los Angeles home to discuss the man's "Alien Guitar Secrets" seminar, as well as forthcoming solo career plans. Steve Vai: Hello? UG: Hello. Can I speak to Steve please? This is Steve. This is Robert Gray from Ultimate-Guitar.com. How are you Steve? I'm fine. Would it be ok if we began the interview? Yeah. You hope to record a follow-up to your 2005 album 'Real Illusions: Reflections'. Could you tell me about that? Yes. 'Real Illusions' is an ongoing concept album which has three parts, and hopefully, that will eventually culminate in a complete three album set. 'Real Illusions' is a very eccentric, somewhat esoteric record set, though I don't plan to write each part one after another. I released 'Real Illusions: Reflections', and subsequently issued a double live CD entitled 'Sound Theories' (2007). I will also release a live DVD entitled 'Where the Wild Things Are', which was filmed during my last tour. Following that, I plan to record a new studio album, and once I've completed that new studio album, I'll likely write a follow up to 'Real Illusions: Reflections'. When do you plan to begin writing material for a new studio album? Likely, I won't work on material for a new studio album until the fall. Right now, I'm working upon 'Where the Wild Things Are'. So no songs have been written for a new studio album, or anything of that nature? I certainly have ideas, but that's it. What can you reveal regarding your forthcoming live DVD 'Where the Wild Things Are'? I had completed a live double-disc orchestra album entitled 'Sound Theories', but didn't feel ready to enter the studio. I wanted to tour, so I put together a group. My concept was to use violinists that were exceptional, though I didn't want to use these metal oriented violinists which shred. I needed violinists that were musical. I found these phenomenal musicians, Ann Marie Calhoun and Alex DePue, and conducted a full tour of Europe, America and South America. I filmed our concert in Minneapolis. The music performed is taken from my catalogue, though it's orchestrated by these amazing violinists. It's quite a wonderful show. I just completed 'Where the Wild Things Are', which'll be issued in July. As I said, following that, I plan to enter the studio, and record a new studio album. I have an idea for an album which would be a little different than the albums I've recorded in the past. I want to write an album which is very melodic and very intense, yet is a throwback to the seventies where you would just group together a bunch of musicians, and record something. That's what I'm looking for. Also, my first solo album, which is called 'Flex-Able', has just reached its twenty-fifth anniversary. I'm remastering that album. You said that you'd like to record an album which is a throwback to the seventies. What appeals to you regarding that? I grew up in the seventies, and was exposed to all of that rich, progressive seventies rock like Queen, Jethro Tull, Emerson, Lake and Palmer, Yes, and Led Zeppelin. That music is so different, and those musicians could really play their instruments. Also, they could write great, melodic songs. Obviously, I wouldn't record anything which sounded dated like the seventies, though the seventies approach is somewhat nice. You gather a group, have them in a room, make music, record that music, and subsequently release that music. There isn't much overdubs, and not a lot of big production. My records have a lot of production, so I'd like to tone that down a bit. After that, the next 'Real Illusions' album will likely arrive.

"Likely, I won't work on material for a new studio album until the fall."

Nowadays, do you feel much emphasis is placed upon production, and sometimes musicians lose focus of just recording a good song? There's everything, I think, and it's always been the same. There have always been musicians very interested in production, as well as musicians interested in writing good songs. There've always been musicians interested in writing good songs with good production, as well. What I'm trying to emphasize is that within music, there's everything. Crap has been written which is over-produced, and under-produced. Some over-produced music sounds brilliant, whilst crap sounds like crap. Also, there's everything in between. Does this forthcoming studio album have a working title? Yes. 'The Abuse of Freedom', but that's just a working title. As you mentioned, 'Flex-Able' has celebrated its twenty-fifth anniversary, and an anniversary edition of the album will be issued. Could you tell me about that? Yeah, sure. For the first time in twenty-five years, I'm actually remastering 'Flex-Able', and am hoping to make it a double-disc. The release will have 'Flex-Able' in its original track format, completely remastered, 'Flex-Able Leftovers' in its original guise, and bonus material that was released in the nineties through 'Flex-Able' and 'Flex-Able Leftovers'. Also, I'll go way, way back to the first recordings I ever laid down, which were made when I had my little four-track recorder. I lived in Hollywood, experimenting with really oddball songs, and really bizarre things. I was a totally different person than I am now. 'Flex-Able''s anniversary edition will be a special package, and will have liner notes where I talk about the album, and who I was at the time, as well as what I thought. Also, it'll have photos from that period. Most artists have a hardcore fanbase who are interested in everything they do. Some people either really dislike that little record, that weird, bizarre work called 'Flex-Able', or find the album very charming and touching. What did 'Flex-Able' mean to you? At the time I wrote 'Flex-Able', you have to remember I was working for Frank Zappa. Frank was a big inspiration, so much of the music and recording techniques were Zappa-esque. That's all I knew. Really though, it was a time of innocence, and a time of naivety. A friend said "Why don't you try and make an album?". I had never thought about making an album, and had always felt nobody would be interested in my music. I thought I would just handle everything myself (laughs). I'm very resourceful, so I began my own label, and figured out the semantics behind releasing an album. I self-released, and made millions of dollars. Do you possibly intend to conduct a tour which celebrates the twenty-fifth anniversary of 'Flex-Able', where you perform all of the album's tracks? I'd love to, but unfortunately, I would never ever do that. 'Flex-Able''s songs aren't simple music, and aren't music where you find a bassist and a drummer, and then jam it out. It'd require rehearsals, and specialized musicians. I'd love to, though I just couldn't - maybe if I live long enough (laughs). You guested upon Spinal Tap's forthcoming 2009 album 'Back From the Dead'. Could you tell me about that? I know Christopher Guest, and I'm a huge fan of his film work. He's a guitar lover, and takes guitar playing very seriously. I just got an email from him, where he asked me if I'd like to guest. I said "Sure", so they sent me the track. It's real funny, as the track is a seven minute number called "Short and Sweet". I just did a little solo, which was fun. Are there any moments featured in 'This Is Spinal Tap' (1984) which you can identify with? You'd be surprised how close it is, since Christopher Guest has this unique way of blurring the lines. So many activities I was a part of during the eighties were like Spinal Tap. You'd be surprised. During every tour, at least once or twice I get lost going to the stage (laughs). (Laughs). Currently, you're conducting a series of guitar clinics dubbed 'Alien Guitar Secrets'. Could you provide some background information regarding these series of clinics? Yeah. I've always enjoyed speaking, and thought I would organize a guitar clinic one day, where I discuss topics that just aren't discussed in any other classes. I thought this would be a good time to conduct a series of clinics, as I'm in between albums. I organized a guitar class, and called that class 'Alien Guitar Secrets'. If you're a young musician, there are very many ways to learn academic guitar in music, such as all the scales, chords and so on. When I look back at my career though, I have a lifetime of experience. There were times where my most intense musical happenings came to fruition, and those happenings didn't really involve academic guitar. By identifying those intense happenings, I was able to discover my own unique playing. The class has many parts which musicians identify with, I think. You cultivate, and voice. I talk about everything from visualization to setting goals and how to achieve those goals, as well as the music business. I'm an authority on the music business; when I was very young, I started my own label, and at one time or another, I've worked with every major label in the world. Also, I've dealt with every attorney in Los Angeles. I've learnt a lot. Many musicians ask how I record my songs, how I make an album, and how I release an album - I know all about all those things. These are some of the things I discuss during each clinic. Each clinic is very open, and very relaxed. People can ask questions at any time. I also perform a backing track, so the clinic is very well rounded. It's fun. The first part of the clinic is dubbed 'When I Was A Little Boy'. Is that where you tell your own story? Yeah. I try to make that part quick as most people know my background, so I only speak about aspects which I think people will personally identify with. Is it good to make pupils aware that you know where they're coming from so to speak? That as an aspiring musician, you were in their position once? In understanding people, people tend to resonate with others. I couldn't talk about things I don't understand. For the most part, I'm really aware of the challenges a musician faces. To this day, I still face some. I talk about those, as challenges always surface. As I'm very experienced, they're more willing to hear me I think. As a budding musician, what were things like for you? Was attempting to get yourself known quite difficult, or quite easy? To be perfectly honest with you, attempting to get myself known was very easy. In my life within the music business, I've never struggled. Everything was always handed on a silver platter, and with bars of gold. I never held any expectations, which is one of the reasons behind that I believe. Anything which came my way was icing on the cake. I had expectations from the way that I played, and the music I wrote. I channeled all my energy into realizing the musical vision which I held in my head. If you're able to discover what you're really good at, then you exaggerate that, and come up with something that's inspiring. That's the way it is. If you attempt to do something that you aren't necessarily cut out to do, then you likely won't be very convincing at it, or very good. If you attempt what you're good at, and work at that, then much of the rest will follow. The only struggle I ever had was just in realizing the music that was in my head, but that was more of a pleasure than a struggle. I face other challenges in my life - I don't live in paradise. I'm not unlike other people, and face other challenges, though music has never been one of those challenges. The second part of the clinic is dubbed 'Building the Church', where you discuss setting short and long term musical goals. Being able to identify what your goals are is one of the things I always recommend, and is likely the most important. You may have a long term goal. For instance, if one of your goals happens to be to make an album, then that might be a long term goal which takes months, or a year, or whatever, to realize. That's a goal you can visualize, however. You then have to be able to thoroughly break that goal down into smaller, accomplishable steps before you can venture onto the next stage, and so each step becomes a short term goal. On the road to making an album, you need to write an album's worth of tracks. One short term goal would be writing a song, so as you'd write each song, you would've achieved a goal. You have to break that down into short steps. Throughout your career, did that help you? Approaching each album song by song? What my career is is a series of goals that were broken down, step by step. If you're a young musician, then the idea of making an album is sometimes overwhelming. Really, in making an album, you just take a vision, visualize, see yourself making an album, and then subsequently break that down into steps. That's how I achieve things.

"I wanted to tour, so I put together a group."

During your 'Alien Guitar Secrets' class, you also discuss guitar playing concepts and music theory as part of the third section, entitled 'Essence'. To a degree. By the time I've finished everything, 'Alien Guitar Secrets' is more like an eight-hour course. Unfortunately, I don't get to discuss some topics in-depth. I can very well talk about music theory. What I talk about is not semantic as such, but more esoteric overviews of how to approach. An official website post of yours states that 'Alien Guitar Secrets' is a three-hour course. So actually, 'Alien Guitar Secrets' spans much longer than three hours then? No. 'Alien Guitar Secrets' does span three hours. In reality though, if I was to discuss every single topic that I would like to discuss, then the course would span across many hours. I understand. You'd like to discuss these topics for many hours, but can only give a overview? Yeah. I get very much in-depth regarding some topics, such as musical meditation and setting goals, both of which I find to be vitally important. As we clarified, 'Alien Guitar Secrets' is a three-hour class. In attempting to adhere to time restrictions, do you find timing yourself difficult? You might become really engaged in certain topics, and run over time. That's one of the problems I have. When I begin talking, I'm very thorough, and I like to completely discuss a topic. The discussion goes on and on though, and the next thing I know, hours have passed (laughs). You mentioned that your debut solo album in 'Flex-Able' was Zappa-esque. 'Alien Guitar Secrets'' fourth part, namely 'Under It All', touches upon discovering your own uniqueness upon the guitar. How did you come to discover your own uniqueness upon the guitar? I made a conscious effort, and was very practical in my approach. I just told myself "I love Jimmy Page, and I love Jimi Hendrix, and I love listening to their music. When I sit down to play though, I need to discover my own identity". Through the years, I constantly tried to imagine melodies and techniques upon the guitar that I'd never heard. It wasn't difficult at all. It was just a matter of telling myself that discovering my own uniqueness was what I wanted to do, and once you tell yourself something, the brain has an uncanny way of visualizing. Everything just fell into place. When you pursue something that's very natural and very simple, you might sometimes suffer from a little heat as some might think that your music isn't good enough, or that your music isn't what every other musician is writing, or that your music won't be accepted given the fact it's too weird or whatever. That's where you have to find the courage to not care, and have to attempt to be unique. Following that, you have to have the balls to show the world. Listen to 'Flex-Able' - nothing like that album has been written. 'Flex-Able' may have some rock qualities and some Zappa qualities, and some sound like this or that at times, though really, the reason I was able to complete that album was because I didn't care. No-one breathed down my neck, telling me what I should do. I had absolutely no desire to hear 'Flex-Able''s songs being played through the radio, and never felt they would be. I didn't have to impress anyone, and didn't ever expect to release 'Flex-Able'. This gave me great freedom to pursue whatever I wanted, and that's usually when the greatest music surfaces. When it then came time to write tracks for 'Passion and Warfare' (1990), my second solo album, it was the same. I had just played with all these huge rock musicians, and had become famous. At some point, I had to start realizing what was important to me, and that was the music in my head. When I opted to make 'Passion and Warfare', I had resigned myself to the fact that; my payday was over, all the big rock star things were finished, and that I may never sell another album in my life. Once I accepted all of that, I was free to make the music that I really wanted. In turn, ironically, 'Passion and Warfare' was the most successful album I've ever recorded. In feeling that way towards making albums, do you feel free and liberated? It's a process. After experiencing all that success due to 'Passion and Warfare', I began to think that I needed to write songs that were more accessible, and that I needed my songs to be played through radio. I made an album (1993's 'Sex & Religion') that I thought would be very accessible, even though it was very esoteric. Ironically though, it wasn't, so that helped me to realize "Come on. Feel free to do what you want. Let everything go, and write the music that you want". That's what I do now, and to a greater or lesser degree, I make music that I know is somewhat accessible, though I enjoy that. Every time I make an album, I view it as an opportunity to play something different. I try to discover interesting things that I'm capable of playing, and as a result, the fans who've stayed with me through the years are the ones who enjoy my solo work. They haven't stayed due to what I recorded as part of Whitesnake. So throughout your career, you've learnt a lot of lessons? Yeah, just like anyone. I'm sure that you've learnt a lot too (laughs). During your 'Alien Guitar Secrets' class, you also discuss the music business as part of the fifth section, entitled 'Midway Creatures'. What are your thoughts regarding the music business in 2009? The music business is changing dramatically. Major record companies have shaped the way that we make, the way that we listen to, and the way that we purchase, music. The music business is very different, and will change again, and will continue to change. Two things will always be needed in the music business. One is the concept of artists making music. The other which'll always be needed is someone who knows how to sell music, and that's what labels do. It's very rare that a musician can do both - I don't know anyone who can. How are you adapting to these changing conditions within 2009's music industry? I adapt, and keep on top of things. Things always change. You have to be aware of what those changes are, and you have to embrace those changes. These days, you have to figure out ways to cultivate your livelihood. For guys like me, the new age of digital awareness and technology has been a God send. Nowadays, I don't have to rely upon labels to release my music, and can upload something online. If you're internet savvy, and like what I do, then you can find me immediately. If you're interested, and want to keep updated with what I'm pursuing, then I have a website you can access. I embrace all these things, and they've worked to my benefit, just as they will to any. Today, many young musicians bemoan illegal downloading. As a result of illegal downloading, do you feel that the current climate is tough for a beginning musician? It's a blip somewhat. The problem is that kids who download music don't understand the importance of intellectual property. Artists are only capable of making music, touring and having a living by selling what they do, though I also know that the industry is changing. Artists will have to make their income and livelihood in different ways. For instance, I've issued music videos. How do you make income through releasing a music video? It's so difficult to sell anything, since whatever you record surfaces via Youtube, and everyone can view that. We worked out an arrangement with Youtube, where every time we receive a hit, we take a fraction of a percent in terms of profits, and Youtube earn a portion from advertising. I receive millions of hits, so that's one way of evolving through time. I conduct these master classes, which are relaxing and fun. Touring is better now than it's ever been. In terms of technology, there are many things out there. I look forward to the day I can throw it all away, and don't have to worry about anyone. I don't enjoy having to keep updated with everything, though it's just a part of my job. I don't like selling my own music. For me, it's uncomfortable. Making art is a very personal thing, and is a personal statement of who you are. It's difficult to sell your art. I have a much easier time selling music by artists signed to my record label, as I don't have much of an emotional connection to their music. Are you happy with your deal with Youtube? Some artists and record labels aren't happy with Youtube, since they feel that the site doesn't offer a lucrative enough deal. It's evolving, I think. Initially, Youtube didn't pay anyone. Some people will always fight, and some will always want more. I try to strike a balance between what's fair for everyone. The music industry is a changing market, and everything is continually changing. At times, I draw a line, and say "No. This is not good enough, and I don't accept". I'm very protective, and I have no desire to sell my music for anything less than what I think it's worth. You have to be practical.

"I wouldn't record anything which sounded dated like the seventies, though the seventies approach is somewhat nice."

During your 'Alien Guitar Secrets' class, you jam with a few attendees as part of the seventh section, entitled 'Head Cuttin' Duel'. When you jam with these attendees, what is that like? It can vary. I have no idea what these musicians intend to play. You have everything, from musicians that have some little tricks up their sleeves and will pull a good melody out, to the guys that shred, and to those who are completely tone deaf and can't even play at all. They just love what they do though, and just love the guitar. I enjoy it all; I enjoy watching it all happen, and being a little part of it is fun. I've been fascinated though, and not necessarily by the brilliance of some attendees, but actually by how tone deaf some attendees are. They still really enjoy it though. Is it difficult then? Do you actually tell tone deaf attendees that they're tone deaf, or are you more diplomatic? Tone deaf is somewhat relative. If someone jams, can't find the key, and are just playing anything, then I join them in what they're playing. I try to bring them along into the centre, a little. I just give them the opportunity to play with Steve Vai, and make them feel comfortable that what they play is fun as well as ok. There was a time when I couldn't find the note either. It's all good. Do some attendees actually pay to attend an 'Alien Guitar Secrets' seminar just to meet you, and hear you speak, as opposed to being guitarists? Everyone attends, I think. Some who attend really want to learn something important for themselves in terms of the guitar, whilst people who don't play the guitar at all want to see what clothes I'm wearing. I don't know (laughs). I aim not to disappoint anyone. During your 'Alien Guitar Secrets' class, the eighth section, entitled 'Answers', is where you conduct a question and answer session. During these question and answer sessions, what type of questions have you been asked? What kind of strings do you use? What kind of pick-ups do you use? To me, these questions just seem like a waste of time for them to ask. These attendees are before Steve Vai who's sat in a chair, and who has all of this rich experience of the music business as well as playing the guitar. Why ask what kind of strings he has, knowing that only X amount of questions can be asked? During these question and answer sessions, are there any particularly difficult questions you've been asked? I have an answer for everything. With some questions though, I don't understand why people ask them, and don't understand where they're coming from. Besides the projects we've discussed, do you have any other forthcoming projects? I'm working on creating an internet delivery system. I have tons and tons of music which has never been released, and some of that music is very good. I want to make it where you're digitally delivered one song a month, along with perhaps video snippets taken from my 'Alien Guitar Secrets' seminars. If you subscribe, other benefits will also be available. That's a very new way that artists can secure an audience, and cultivate an audience. It's really great - if you're interested and sign up, you receive a song every month or whatever, and receive things that that artist has made. I'm working on that, though that project won't interfere with an actual, intentional CD release. I also have another forthcoming project, and that I'm very excited about. I was approached by the Dutch Symphony Orchestra. In October 2010, they will host a Steve Vai festival, which'll boast five days of all these Steve Vai related things (laughs). One day will see small ensembles performing my music, while another day will possibly see me with my group. Also, another day will see various friends of mine that I've performed with and played with. Two days worth of compositions with the orchestra will occur. I'm so thrilled, and so honoured. It'll take a lot of work, so I'm blocking out four months of undisturbed time. Will your collaboration with the Dutch Symphony Orchestra be recorded for a DVD release? I'm hoping so. If you had to give one piece of advice to an aspiring guitarist, what would that piece of advice be? Really enjoy playing the guitar. Don't worry about anything, and play no matter what. Play regardless of what anyone says, regardless of any fears you have, regardless of whether you think you're good enough or not, and regardless of what the world thinks. None of that matters. Playing is a personal, cathartic process. It's our birthright. Thank you for the interview Steve. It's been really great. All the best with your future projects. The same to you, and thanks for your interest. Take care, and goodbye. Ok. So long. Bye. Bye. Interview by Robert Gray Ultimate-Guitar.Com 2009
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