INTERVIEW: Steve Vai on The Story Of Light
Steve Vai needs no introduction.
Your new album The Story Of Light is a bit of a departure and it’s been a while since you’ve released a studio album of new material. Where did this one come from?
I guess it came from the same place the other ones came from, but maybe a little bolder. I searched my inner ear more and I gravitated towards things that excited me, as opposed to some things that I thought should be on there. And it’s also the second instalment of a trilogy of records that have a story to it, and as a result the songs are built around characters and situations and events in the story. So when you have something like that to go by, it can inspire you to do certain things that you may not ordinarily do if you just sat down to write a song.
When I first heard of the concept it made me think of Bowie’s 1.Outside album, where he was playing characters and dipping into this non-linear narrative.
Well, it’s still very out of order, and when I get around to doing the third instalment it’ll still be out of order too. But then what I’d like to do is take all three records and create a four-record box with all the songs in the right order, narrative, some new material, glue for the in-between bits. Songs that are instrumental now may have lyrics. So it’d be a whole different experience where you can sit down and actually hear the whole thing go by.
I love the structure of the title track, “The Story of Light.” It’s like it drops you into this world, then there are hints that something special is coming, and then boom, you get that really colourful middle section.
I wanted to create something that had a rhythmic, disjointed kind of a feel but with a pulse, y’know what I mean? If you listen carefully there’s a lot of polymetric stuff going on with the rhythm section. On the last record I did this track called “Under It All” and it had all these big seven-string chords. I loved that and I wanted to explore it some more, so what I was thinking was creating this wall of big, fat, lush chord structures with the seven-string guitar with tonnes of distortion. It’s hard to get notes to sing when the chords are that big and there’s that much tension in the notes of the chord, and also when there’s that much distortion. So I had to play it a certain way. And then I doubled it and tripled it, and there are all sorts of guitars and all sorts of instruments on there to create that wall of sound. But after I guess three minutes of that kind of density I wanted to hear a big long melody. And what happens is, the song actually repeats itself. It’s the same chord changes as the whole first part of the song but there’s a melody written on top of it. The melody is doubled, and when I was doing the melody I wanted to create phrasings on the guitar that were special. Each phrase, I studied it and thought ‘How can I create something that’s slightly different to anything I’ve ever played before?’ But still it had to maintain a melodicism that speaks a certain way. There’s a tremendous amount of phrasing and articulation on that melody. And the way that the drums, bass and piano follow it all is really entertaining to me. I mean, it really stimulates me because it sounds like it flows almost improvisationally but it’s completely composed. Every drum hit, everything.
“Velorum” is a great song, and I love the tone on the lead guitar.
The melody? That’s actually an acoustic guitar through a lot of different processing. If you listen carefully you can hear the dry clean acoustic underneath it, then there’s the distorted amp on top and there’s choruses and a lot going on.
As a seven-string player myself it’s great to hear so much seven-string on the album. Was this the burned Ibanez Universe, which I had a poster of on my wall when I was a teenager? [See this guitar here at Premierguitar.com]
Yup! And that’s the one I’ll be taking on tour with me.
Now, “John The Revelator” and “Book Of The Seven Seals” – they’re going to throw a bit of a curve ball!
Yeah! It was one of those things where I didn’t think about any of that stuff, I just heard something in my head and I just chased it and chased it until I was finished. And listening back I was kind of stunned, like ‘What did you do, Vai?’ It’s really kinda left-field. But I knew it was gonna be different and interesting because the idea excited me before I did it. A couple of times I thought ‘Well… maybe I shouldn’t do that, because it’s really gonna be left-of-centre and people aren’t going to get it.’ But then I thought, ‘Wait, what the hell do I have to lose?’ What my fans like is when I throw curve balls that work. Sometimes they don’t work, but I just felt this excitement about the idea, so I built it, and what’s really funny is I’ve been doing a lot of press, and I have people who were really snobby and cold to me in the past who are calling me going ‘What the fuck did you do? Holy mackerel!’
The seventh song, “Mullach a’ tSi” - the first thing I thought when I listened to it was ‘I can already see Vai’s facial expressions…’
… through the speakers as I imagine him playing it. How many seventh songs do you go through before you find the one for each album?
Well, y’know, frankly it was a little difficult for this record. I was going to make “Weeping China Doll” the seventh song, but the seventh songs are traditionally melody, melody, wailing, wailing, and I just wanted to do away with the wailing. I wanted to climax the song without playing aggressively. And this song was such a study, because I fashioned it after a cultural Celtic singer. So there are these tremendously fine nuances in the playing which took forever – I had to re-learn the guitar to do these phrases! I mean, getting just the right wah wah flex with the right volume knob and the whammy bar… some notes are like, whammy bar, single note slide, volume knob and wah wah all in the span of three notes, y’know? And that’s what I did to create that illusion of a voice and also that illusion of these … well, not illusion, but reality of these exquisite Celtic traditional music sensibilities. It was a real study and a lot of work, and it was really worth it because not only did I expand my vocabulary on the instrument, but the piece came out very beautifully. And the climax of the piece is really one of my favourites because it just consists of one phrase at the end where the notes are impossibly high, they sing beautifully and they have this emotional investment in them that was just …I wish I could hold onto it longer, y’know? [Laughs]
Do you listen back to your music for your own enjoyment? My feeling is that you would create this music because it’s what you want to hear, but some artists don’t like to listen to their work. I listen to mine all the time!
I do too! I like my music! Yeah! I think it’s good to like your music. I don’t have any regrets. I mean, there are songs I like more than others, but yeah! I find myself going back to certain tracks over and over again, because I don’t really experience a track until it’s done and it’s released, because then I can’t change it any more. I know it’s done. And I’m very critical through the process. When you’re building something you have a vision in mind, but in the process of building it you’re very attached to the details. Detail, detail, detail. And sometimes you don’t see the forest for the trees, y’know what I mean? So when I listen back to the record I’m like, ‘Wow, that’s really beautiful.’ It’s almost romantic. At least that’s my feeling.
DiMarzio recently sent me a set of your new Gravity Storm pickups to review…
Oh, right on!
Yeah, I’ve had them in one of my Ibanezes for a few weeks. What were you looking for in these?
Well, the Evolution is very high output, high gain. And my sound as a result is a very distorted sound. And I like that – I always have. But with the Gravity Storm I wanted something tighter in the bottom end, and maybe a little less… not output, but distortion, so I can crank the amps a little more. And the Evolutions can have a tendency to be top-endy sometimes, y’know? And the Gravity Storms have a smoother top end, I think. What’s your assessment?
I feel like they’re definitely smoother and fatter. To me the Evolution really keeps you on your toes because they reproduce every little nuance, and I think a lot of players can be scared off by that. I think some will prefer these because they’ll be able to relax a little more.
Yeah. That’s a very interesting observation!
Tell us about your Digital Nations venture.
Well, as the record industry changes I wanted to keep up. A lot of people feel that when change comes along it’s all grim and we’re all going to hell in a handbag, that the industry’s dead. But the industry is never going to be dead. It’s just that the model is changing. So I’m always trying to look beyond the curve, and digital distribution is really convenient. It’s easy, you don’t have to worry about manufacturing and smashed goods and all that. I mean, the one drag would be you don’t have something to hold in your hand and fetish, but it just became too difficult to release CDs. I’m not sure what it’s like in Australia, but I know that in America so many chains… well no, I do know what it’s like in Australia and it’s the same sort of thing: chains going under, and there’s not really a lot of places you can go and buy CDs the way there used to be. So it’s difficult to get the kind of music I was releasing on Favored Nations into stores. So with Digital Nations we have 200 or so digital stores around the world, and it’s really simple: you’re the label. A person comes along and pays a fee and they immediately have access to hundreds of digital stores, including iTunes, and they collect 90% of the money. The thing that’s really nice is we build a web page and we market it to various digital outlets and music stores and stuff. We send out blasts. We don’t really cultivate the press because that’s more of what the artists need to do. It’s a service, and it’s working out pretty good for some people. But what I would say to most musicians who want to make their music available, with something like Digital Nations or some of the other things that available now, it’s easy to make your music available digitally around the world in minutes, but it doesn’t mean it’s going to sell. You’ve got to work your ass off. You’ve got to get out there, you’ve got to play, you’ve got to create a story that’s compelling and you’ve got to continue to figure out ways to get yourself heard, get your music heard, and enjoy the process while you’re doing it. If you enjoy the process then there’s no pressure, y’know?
I see this constantly: a new band will put out an EP that they work really hard on, then they break up two months later because it didn’t sell. But that’s only the start of the process. That’s like going through labour and having a baby. Then the parenting starts!
Yeah! Well it’s true. But you see, if a person is compelled to be a musician, they don’t have a choice. People who are truly musicians, they don’t care! Obviously it’s nice when things sell, but the juice for them is in the creation of the art. And that, they’re never going to stop doing. And usually that’s when you’re the most successful. Just don’t give up. There’s a great Frank Zappa quote… he was asked for advice for a young musician, and he said ‘There’s only two things to remember. Number one: Don’t stop. And number two: Keep going.”