INTERVIEW: Steve Vai

Steve Vai

Steve Vai doesn’t do things by halves. When he sinks his teeth into a creative concept, he doesn’t let it go until it’s completely and thoroughly tamed. Take, for example, his new live DVD, Where The Wild Things Are (CLICK HERE to buy it from Riot Entertainment). It’s as intense and colourful as it is virtuosic and funny – the perfect filmic compliment to the technicolour frenzy that is his musical output or the multicolour splatter of his famed swirly Ibanez Universe 7-strings. Vai’s always been a huge inspiration to me so I jumped at the chance to interview him about Where The Wild Things Are, the art of improvisation, and just what’s next for the Ibanez Jem line…

Let’s talk about the new DVD. That tour obviously didn’t come to Australia, so the DVD was the first thing I’ve seen of that line-up.

First of all, I’m sorry I didn’t make it to Australia. It was a relatively short tour because I had just finished a project that had me working in the studio for over a year, which was the orchestra project I did with the Metropole Orchestra in Holland. So at the end of that I wanted to put a band together. Something different, something unique, hopefully something that no-one has ever done, and go out and do a short tour. I wanted to put the kind of band together that would give the music a different kind of dimension. So I had a couple of different ideas. One of them was to have a rock band core with two additional percussionists. Another was to have a rock band core with a twelve-piece horn section, and another was to have two violins. So I chose the two violins this time because it made the most sense coming out of the orchestra project. The problem was finding the right players because my music, although it can be very compositional in nature, it’s fused with rock and roll sensibility, y’know, because I’m primarily a rock artist. So because the music can be very challenging and demanding I needed musicians that could read music. All the violin players I was auditioning were these metal violin shredders. They sounded terrible. They couldn’t really play well and they didn’t understand the dynamics and the nuance of the music. And all the classical players I auditioned who could read the music didn’t have any rock and roll sensibility, so when I turned my amps up their violin bows melted and they ran for the hills. So I was lucky than Ann Marie Calhoun and Alex DePue fell into my life because they are real stunners. They are unbelieveably talented, elite players with great discipline and respect, and wonderful people.

And great stage presence too.

Yeah! It’s like the devil and the angel!

When you go to a Steve Vai show you don’t want to see someone standing in the corner playing. You want someone to perform!

Vai: Yep! Well they perform! And when it came time to put the show together, there are certain elements I try to stick to to create an interesting show because just a guy standing up there playing electric guitar all night, even though it’s great it could get kinda boring, and I like to do long shows. And especially DVDs – I like to do DVDs that have entertainment value. So I created this whole visual of the show with all these dynamics, broken down in to different sections, and then we filmed it. I waited until we got to America. We did 30 days of 12 to 15 hour a day rehearsals, and then we did a 30 day tour of Europe, a month in the States and then we did South America. And by the time we got to the States the band was ripe. They were smokin’, and they were ready to be filmed. I chose the State Theatre in Minneapolis because it’s such a gorgeous venue. It’s really big and it’s historical. It’s got this large wooden stage which sounds so much better than rubber, tile, concrete, carpet. It’s the best sounding surface. So it made the recording very warm. And there it is!

It’s a beautiful looking concert film too. The Live At The Astoria DVD, I believe you’ve said in the past that there were scenes where they just weren’t filming your guitar and stuff like that. But Where The Wild Things Are looks as gorgeous as the music feels.

Oh thanks. You learn as you go, and when I got into the edit bay to edit the Astoria DVD I was trying to squeeze blood out of a rock, y’know. ‘There’s Steve sitting on a fence, trying to make a dollar out of 99 cents.’ So when it came time to shoot the Minneapolis show I made sure I had very thorough production meetings, and I made it very clear on more than five occasions what each camera was supposed to be doing – and still they screwed up a lot of stuff. But for the most part there was enough there to make the kind of edits that made sense to me.

Bryan Beller is kicking ass on this thing!

Yeah! Doesn’t he sound great! I had to mix his bass really loud because it sounded so good.

So the 25th anniversary release of Flex-Able is coming out soon – when is that coming out?

Well I’m working on it right now! As I’m sitting here talking to you I’m looking at the machine. It’ll probably come out next year some time. I’ve got a lot of things coming out right now, and you’ve got to be careful how you position things so you’re not killing everybody.

And of course the anniversary of Passion & Warfare is coming up soon too. Do you have any plans to do something for that?

Well… Flex-Able is hitting 25, and I’m doing a complete remastering which is sounding unbelieveable. And also adding bonus footage and doing all that stuff… making a package for the fans that really like that stuff. And if I was to do something for the 20th anniversary of Passion & Warfare it’d be like next week or something. So I figured I’d wait for the 25th and then do things. I like 25.

How do you feel about Passion & Warfare now? It was a huge one for me – it coincided with the end of grade school and the start of high school for me, and it was like this world of musical colour right when I was really falling in love with the electric guitar.

I just feel very blessed and fortunate that I had an opportunity to do that record, because it was a long time coming. Because when I was with Alcatrazz… no actually, from as long back as I could remember, when I was a little boy and I discovered music, I knew that I had my own musical voice, so to speak. And it wasn’t a unique kind of thing, it was just something that I think songwriters and composers have. And through the years, one thing led to another led to another, and when I did Flex-Able it was just a time when I was very free, I had no expectations, I didn’t expect to become famous or rich or even that the record would be released. It was really just an opportunity for me to have fun with my friends and do stuff that made us laugh. I had tonnes of stuff recorded – tonnes and tonnes. Flex-Able represents probably five percent of what I recorded in that period. And when it came out, when I actually figured out how to put it out there and it started to sell, I realised it was really a conduit to people: making music and releasing it. Then when I joined all these big rock bands in the 80s, that stimulated a particular desire for me, when it comes to satiating a rock and roll sensibility and being a rock star and all that, that was fun. But through all of it I knew there was this music in my head that really needed to be expressed. I started working on Passion & Warfare right after Flex-Able, but because when I joined Dave Roth I couldn’t release it, when I joined Whitesnake I couldn’t release it. Then finally after I left the Roth band and I quit Whitesnake I just knew that this brand of music had to be created, y’know? I locked myself in the studio and I just felt a lot of liberation and freedom. Because like I said, I didn’t have any expectations, and that’s really one of the best ways – for me at least – to create music, because you’re really free to do what you’re hearing in your head. When I released that record I really didn’t expect it to sell at all. I thought ‘Who’s gonna want it? There’s nothing like it.’ I thought it was good, I enjoyed it, but that didn’t mean anything. How do I know what other people would think? So I was somewhat detached, y’know? And the first person I played it for was David Coverdale. I told him, ‘It’s probably not going to sell anything.’ And he said [adopts David Coverdale voice] ‘Steven darling, I think you’re wrong. This is a tremendously beautiful record. You’re going to be very surprised.’ And he was right, because it was gold in one week. But I get that a lot, that a lot of young people discovered it when they were going to school and it was the soundtrack for their year or something.

I used to sit around and harmonize to ‘The Riddle.’ I didn’t have a 7-string so I thought ‘how can I play along if I can’t do those low notes? I’ll just play a harmony.’

Well there ya go!

Let’s talk about the Ibanez Jem and Universe for a while. I’ve got one of each, and even though they’re your guitars I kinda feel like they were designed for me. They just fit my body and way of playing so well.

You must have a body like an upside-down question mark also!

Haha. Do you have any new developments coming?

Yeah there’s always new developments! That’s one of the fun things about being Steve Vai! They’re willing to build anything you want. In the beginning, back with even Alcatrazz, my style was developing and there were certain things I wanted to do, and certain things I wanted in a guitar, that no conventional guitar really had. So I went to this little guitar shop around the corner and I got a piece of wood, told them how to carve the body… because I liked the way Strats looked, and I couldn’t seem to sit with a Les Paul, but there was something about Strats… they were beautiful, but they weren’t sexy enough. So I thought, how do I make them look a little cooler? It was just my taste – to me it didn’t mean anything to anybody except me. I thought, ‘This is just me, I can do anything I want because I’m buying the piece of wood,’ y’know? So I had the body shaped a particular way and it sits really well for me. Nobody was making 24 fret necks for guitars with whammy bars – it was really unheard-of – so I said ‘Make me a 24-fret with this scale length so it works with this kind of guitar…’ And then I had the cutaway cut really deep because it’s just practical. I can’t reach the notes on another guitar. When I go to play a Strat and I go to play high, the body gets in the way, so it’s like, ‘Just cut it out!’ And I did that and it looked good and it worked great. And then the pickup configuration at the time was completely unique. There was nothing like it. Nobody had three pickups, two of them being humbuckers, on a guitar with a whammy bar. And the thing is, the way that it was wired with the 5-way switch was unique too. When you’re in the neck position you get a humbucker, but between the middle pickup and the neck position you’ve got them both on and it splits the coil in that position, so you get two single coils, which gives you that cool Stratty kinda sound, which I love. And no noise too, because the hum is getting bucked! And then there’s the whammy bar. I wanted to pull up on the whammy bar, and no guitar let you really pull up on it. I just looked at it and I thought, ‘Well, the only thing stopping it is this piece of wood here…’ So I took a screwdriver and a hammer and I just banged out the wood, and that was the first real floating tremolo system. And then there were the practical things – like, I don’t need two tone controls, the volume knob should be here because it gets in the way when it’s there. And just simple things like the input jack. Guitars had input jacks pointing down, so you’re always stepping on them and pulling the cable out.

And cracking the little plastic bit around it if it has that kind of design. I’ve replaced so many of those damn things!

Yeah! And I just thought, well why not recess it and put it on an angle? It’s such a stupid, simple idea that no-one ever did, that works perfectly. So I had this guitar that was really exactly what I want. All these guitar companies were approaching me to play their instruments and I just couldn’t understand why they would want me to play their instrument when I had one that was so perfect for me. So I said ‘If you want to make this instrument for me, I’ll play it, if it’s good.’ Because it was a pain in the ass having this guitar – I had four of them made, and it would be great to have a real company making them. So they all approached me, and I said whoever makes me the best guitar based on my specifications is the one I will use. And so many guitars just gave me back crap. They would take a guitar that was in their line, alter it a bit and say ‘Here ya go, Steve.’ And it was nothing to do with what I wanted. So Ibanez, within two weeks, created an instrument that was absolutely flawless and perfect. It was exactly what I wanted. So that was the Jem, and that’s what it’s been for 22 years now.

So where to from here for the ‘ol girl?

There’s always little innovations. We’re working on a new material pattern – remember the floral pattern? Oh my gosh, we’re doing something like that again but ah, the pattern is so gorgeous. When you see it you’re going to die. And also there’s one innovation, I can’t really tell you what it is, but it’s revolutionary. It’s one of those very simple, practical things that no-one ever did, and it’s just like, ‘Well duh!’

Is this going to be at NAMM in January?

Yeah, we’re going to have a couple of things there. NAMM show’s amazing. Just tonnes and tonnes of cool stuff!

I notice you’ve been pictured a lot with the ‘For The Love Of God’ Universe lately. Are you using that much?

Yeah! I’m thinking of using it for my next record.

Cool! What are the plans for the next one? How far off?

I’ve got a couple of projects I’m working on. One of them, I have to finish up this DVD (Where the Wild Things Are) which at this point means press. Then I’ve got the 25th anniversary of Flex-Able I need to complete. Then I’m getting together a big handful of songs that I’m going to be spoonfeeding digitally once a month. Because I’ve got a vault just filled with stuff in various forms of completion that never quite fit for a particular project, but now if I release them all as singles it doesn’t matter. Then I’m hoping to go into the studio and create a studio record, and I’d like to use the band that I had on the DVD.

One of my readers wanted to know if there were still any plans to do another Alien Love Secrets kind of thing like you mentioned a few years ago.

Yeah, y’know, it’s one of those things I’d like to do. It’s just that I’ve got so many ideas for various projects and each one can take a year, y’know? So I’ve gotta be really careful with my time. I know that that particular type of record would be something a lot of my fans would really like to hear, but if it’s up to me – which it is [laughs] – to go and do a stripped-down trio record right now or take this band with string players and create a whole record with a concept and all that, it’s a hard choice. Frankly putting a show on is much more entertaining when you have a bigger band, so I have to keep that component in mind. So I don’t know. Right now I’m leaning towards doing something with the band.

Another reader question was whether you’d be interested in doing something like Joe Satriani has done with Chickenfoot – although you’ve already had a band with a Van Halen singer!

Yeah, I’ve been there, done that, I guess! You know it’s interesting, I get asked that question a lot. I went to see Chickenfoot and it was a lot of fun. A great party band. I saw Joe and it looked like he was having a great time. In my mind I put myself in that position and thought it sure would be nice to take a break from all the hard solo work and being the guy that has to make all the decisions, and just put a bunch of guys together and go out there to play simple rock music to people who want to just party and have a good time. But then I thought ‘…Nah.’ There’s just way too much I want to do that’s really very compositional and theatrical and rich. And you know what? The great thing is, for me, I did have that opportunity in the 80s. And I really embraced it and I loved it. I played every arena in the country five times. And it was really fun, and part of me pines for those days. But really, when I think about the here and now, it’s all really about exercising my potential as a guitar player and a composer to the best of my ability, and I just don’t think I could do that in a band situation.

As a fan I’ve loved that over the last decade or so you’ve seemed a bit reflective about the back catalogue, with orchestral reinterpretations, various live versions and stuff, but now I’m like, ‘Man, I want to hear some new music.’

Yeah, me too! I’m starting to feel like, ‘Gee Steve, remember you used to write music, Vai?’ But I’ve got some fun stuff up my sleeve. It gets better, stick with me!

Another reader wanted to know about your approach to improvising – what you think about when you’re improvising. What goes through your mind?

Well, a part of me thinks about real practical stuff – ‘We go to this piece of gear here, we shift into this mode here, we try this harmonic atmosphere.’ But that’s a very small part. The thing that I try to capture is, it’s a particular frame of mind. It can be elusive, but there’s this focus that you go to, this little place that exists between your brain and the tip of your fingers and your ears. It’s this process of listening to your environment, processing it with your creative element, then letting that creative element take control of your fingers and just trying to step back from it. But it’s easy to lose that focus, because when you’re doing that, usually for me, you’re in the moment. Improvising, most of it is listening – responding to what’s coming into your ears and letting your fingers move in an unobstructed way. And there are all these little flashes that are just comfortable visuals, like you’re hearing something and you know that there’s a particular scale or note or atmosphere or chord that’s going to work. And that’s just like a ghost to letting your fingers speak. And here’s the trick with being in the moment: you almost have to be a little bit ahead of the moment. You have to think about where you’re going, and then once you’re exploring where you’re going, your fingers and everything are performing where you were thinking about going. So you’re almost not even a part of the playing – your whole consciousness is in that elusive space of just a little bit ahead of what you’re about to play.

I know for me something happened about five years ago with improvising. It was almost like time was slowing down and I was getting in between the notes and hearing things before I play them.

That’s the thing. It’s like becoming one with the note.

Yeah. I felt I was in a rut before this, and one day I just stopped thinking so hard and started listening, and I felt like my whole playing opened up.

And you’ll notice that there are plateaus to each zone. And as you go through life and you keep doing it, it becomes a cathartic process of self-discovery. You just have to keep doing it. It’s about letting go of your hang-ups, about being afraid of what’s going to happen, about letting go of the big fear of being accepted, or that what you’re playing isn’t good enough. So many people get hung up on that shit. ‘I don’t have the cool gear,’ or whatever that is, you know? And you’ve really gotta let go of all of that shit and be in the moment of the note. And being in the moment is that frame of mind where you’re not thinking about these other things. Because the moment you’re thinking about these other things, you’re creating the future and the past. But you’re right on when you say that time starts to stand still and slow down. Because what happens is the mind is constantly creating the future and the past because of the way we think. We’re always thinking about what we’re gonna do, or what we did, or what happened yesterday, or what’s going to happen tomorrow. But when you bring your focus of attention to what you’re doing at hand, you’re not thinking about the future and the past, so time is actually slowing down. It’s just a perception, really.

It’s really deep to discover this side of myself personally and musically. It just seemed to open up so much more!

Yeah, and that’ll continue to open up, the more you let go.

Man I love music!

Yeah. It’s a good life!

Where The Wild Things Are is out now on Favored Nations.