Steve Vai explores some strange, beautiful six-stringed terrain
The first item on Steve Vai’s CV is ‘Stunt Guitarist,’ a title given to him at age 19 by avant-garde maestro Frank Zappa, who had enlisted the prodigious young guitar wiz right out of college (Berklee, natch) to play some “impossible guitar parts.” Now, with the release “The Story of Light,” Vai is three illustrious decades down the road. While guitar parts remain, to the lay-fingered, impossible, the charlatan stunting of youth has clearly evolved into legitimate miracle working, as “Light” reveals a careful, if not vibrantly colorful, composer.
“My fans can be really polarized,” says Vai, “because some of them are very interested in having me just play guitar or heavy rock instrumental songs, and some of them really like the dense compositional stuff, and some of them like the vocal ballads.”
Not a man to disappoint, Vai offers all options on “Light.” Moments in Celtic ballad ‘Mullach A’tSi’ have the feather-touch of a grandmother’s lullaby. Granny leaves the room elsewhere, though, on songs like the title track or “Gravity Storm,” where Vai reminds us of his guitar superheroism, and on the bombastic “John The Revelator” featuring “The Voice” finalist Beverly McClellan. A new kind of treat, “Creamsicle Sunset” is all glimmering, woozy sweetness.
To dismiss this album as ‘Instrumental Rock Guitar’ is to say that Charlie’s visit to the Chocolate Factory is about a kid who goes to a manufacturing plant. There’s a lot of tasty candy here for those who are willing to explore.
Amsterdam and Aimee Mann
On “No More Amsterdam,” Vai enlists former Berklee classmate Aimee Mann to share the twirling duet.
“At face value, you’d think something like that would never work,” says Vai, “but it was a beautiful collaboration.”
Metro: So I understand you and the band are all headed to Africa and India for the first time on this tour?
Vai: Yeah, but I’ve had offers in the past to go there, but it was always some kind of political hazard. But some offers came in for places like India, Africa, Dubai, and those places I haven’t performed. I’ve been in India quite a few times, but never performed there.
This will be a great opportunity for your fans – the high price of international appeal! There will be a lot of fresh faces in the crowd.
Vai: Yeah, it’s always nice. It’s interesting how dynamically different fans can be in cultures that are relatively removed from the Western world.
I can only imagine. When you did your Alive In An Ultra World project, you were using your international venues to backdrop songs dedicated to that audience. Maybe now you can do a Dubai addendum!
Vai: Yeah, I actually plan on doing much more than that! The plan right now, although it’s probably premature to talk about, is to bring a small film crew and create a touring document.
So, we have to get real. It’s on everyone’s minds. Everybody’s talking. The world is asking… will you be stepping back into your role as Air Guitarist-In-Chief for the third ‘Bill and Ted’ movie that was recently announced? I still have The Reaper Rap on heavy rotation.
Vai: Oh, great. Right on. It’s gonna be fun if I’m part of it. Am I going to be in the film? No, absolutely not. There’s a lot of restrictions when you’re a film composer, and some people work in those restrictions very well, and when you get a taste of total freedom, it’s hard to go back. I mean if they called me and said, “Do you want to lay down some air guitar parts,” and if it was something I could contribute to that allows me to be me, I would consider it. There’s no plans.
Bogus! Well, I had to ask on behalf of all the Vai/B&T fans.
Vai: You were the first.
Excellent! So the new album, The Story of Light, is out and it’s fantastic. It also sounds like it was an unbelievable amount of work. Is it a relief to finally set it loose?
Vai: Yeah, it’s always a real treat. It could be terrifying–you go through these different phases. When you’re making the record, you come up with an idea, and that’s really the inspiration. An artist can be so compelled by an idea that they become myopic, like nothing matters but getting the idea expressed, even though it may be quirky; it may be left of center, it may be outside what people are expecting. You’re just compelled; you have no choice. And that’s what my favorite to be in–it’s the most exciting zone because you’re creating something that’s really in your inner vision. And then when it comes out better than expected, it makes every day like Christmas. And then you put them all together and you have a record and you get really excited. And then the release date approaches and you start going through a phase where you’re second-guessing yourself and you’re thinking, “Oh my God, did I really do this? What are the fans gonna think?” And luckily it doesn’t last very long because you did your best; you put your best foot forward. A lot of time when it comes out, an artist goes through the process of doing interviews and having their work criticized–and sometimes the criticism’s really good, sometimes it’s not. My fans can be really polarized because some of them are very interested in having just play guitar or heavy rock instrumental songs, and some of them really like the dense compositional stuff, and some of them like the vocal ballads. So, as a result, you get this very polarized fan base, sometimes. For me, it seems as you go through your career, you find a core audience that just really gets the thread of your musical identity that runs through everything and they accept everything. I’m just so happy with the way the record is being received. It entered the Billboard Top 200 at number 78. That’s the first time for me in 20 years.
Vai: I don’t usually run after reviews, but the ones that are coming forth are very encouraging.
You had mentioned the trifecta of the more balladic or compositional music, the vocal music, and the heavy instrumental stuff that comprises a lot of your music, and this album has a great mélange of the three. You definitely took a unique turn on the tracks ‘John the Revelator’ and ‘The Book of Seven Seals’. How did those tracks come together? I had read in Premiere Guitar that you had the idea for a choir of “white, middle-American Republicans” in mind for ‘Seven Seals’? Was it tough to go between more straight forward songs and these construction projects?
Vai: [Laughs] Well, it’s interesting because I don’t usually discern the difference between a piece like “John the Revelator,” “Book of the Seven Seals” and “Creamsicle Sunset: when it comes to giving myself the marching orders, because an idea has to reach a fever pitch for me, and then it becomes so compelling I can’t help it. That’s fine. That’s when I move forward with it. But, as you said, the record, and all of my records, contain a dynamic diversity that you really have to be interested in. You take a song like “Creamsicle Sunset,” you would never expect an artist to put a song like that on a record with “The Story of Light.” You’d never hear “Velorum” on the same record as “No More Amsterdam.” And “John the Revelator,” where the hell was that from?
Definitely beamed down from the mothership.
Vai: When I did come up with the idea for “John” and “The Book,” I was overwhelmed with inspiration and I just heard that original Blind Willie Johnson track, I just heard it with all these heavy guitars and I needed a really great singer, and Beverly McClellan came into my life like an angel.
Where did that pairing come from? How did you find each other?
Vai: Well, I was hosting an event with Sharon Osbourne and she was one of the performers on the bill. I didn’t see her on “The Voice.” I don’t really watch those shows. And as soon as I saw her singing, I just came apart. It was overwhelming with her honesty, her being in touch–she’s just a very, very special artist, and I was immediately captivated. So I thought, “That’s my singer for ‘John the Revelator.’” And I didn’t know if she’d be interested because Steve Vai is so different from the world she comes from. She heard the track and she liked it, and it’s a hard track to sing because she has this beautiful, powerful, soulful voice, and “John the Revelator” she’s just giving it up 100 percent. And it’s hard to do, but she just nailed it, totally owns it. I wanted to create a little journey with those two pieces, ’cause they were one piece. It was all “John the Revelator” and I split it in half, and I had heard that vocal arrangement, I just loved the hokey quality to it. It’s like some bizarre, Broadway thing. But it’s so powerful because it’s a really powerful arrangement, so I took the arrangement and I orchestrated it with the guitars and all the other instruments and I hired all these singers–about 80 voices on that. And I just heard in my head this real juxtaposition of the two sections. Like I said, the first part being this really powerful, heavy delivery, and the second one blasting into this hokey gospel thing. And it works really, really well for the story and have the story unfold. The guitar fans, some of them won’t even buy the record because there’s those tracks on it.
Is that the myopia you were talking about?
Vai: Yeah, but as an artist, the worst thing you can do is go against your creative instincts.
There are some great and varied interpretations of “John the Revelator” – Jack White plays it like a devil.
Vai: There’s a lot of interpretations. Some of them are really good. The “Sons of Anarchy” did it. If you haven’t heard it, you should check it out. It’s really spooky. Gov’t Mule did a really great one. Beck did a version.
Jeff? Or just Beck, mononymic?
Vai: Just Beck.
Someone should get Jeff Beck on the job. So, I think “The Moon and I” might be my favorite song on the album – it’s got a real atmosphere and mystery to it. It’s also a good counter to the density of songs like “John the Revelator” since the whole middle section is so wide open and phrased. Is that a song you’re enjoying playing live? You just get to sit back and play your guitar.
Vai: Yeah, I’ve been doing it every night. It’s a bit of a beast to play because the solo is pretty ferocious, and what’s interesting is how that track came about. The track was recorded at a sound check in Athens, Greece, many years ago. Yeah, because I have this policy where in sound check, I come in and I pick up the guitar and I start playing and I remember what I’m gonna play, and the band just follows me, and we record it. And sometimes it’s crap, but sometimes there are some inspired little nuggets. So it came in sound check, and I just started playing these chords and I instinctively saw the entire form of the song in my mind and I stopped the band and I explained the form. We only had 10 minutes. We played through it once and recorded it, and no rehearsal or anything, and that’s the only time it was ever performed. Years later, I have hundreds of those things from sound checks through the years, and I just recorded a great one yesterday. So but anyway, they just sit on the shelf, and I heard it, and it had that quality you were describing. So I brushed it off and I put the sound effects on there. I put the vocal and I put a guitar solo on it. And then I released it as a VaiTunes [previously unreleased song snippets or rare tracks Vai distributes from his website].
The solo in that song has very lyrical phrasing. You’re singing in the beginning of the song about a “love affair between the moon and I” and then the guitar has a very vocally tuned phrasing to it. Was that sort of a continuation or a dialog with the vocal part?
Vai: That was something that I thought out and I built it and then I learned it. What I like to do sometimes when I do solos, I take them piece by piece, section by section, try to do things I’ve never done before. And “The Moon and I” is a really good example. Unless you’re really interested in guitar playing and are familiar with the way I play, it goes over people’s heads, but there’s techniques in there. To talk technically and academically, bending octaves with the [whammy] bar and various call and response things, being really harsh then really tender in the different areas of the neck and just ripping as hard as I can on riffs I’m experimenting with. I can’t just do that. So what happens is, after I build it and I learn it, it changes your whole perspective on your future playing. It adds something to your vocabulary, but it’s a beast. And just about now, I’m falling into this beautiful groove on it. I’m relaxed, When you play a piece of music, you go through these transformations. Usually the first stage is just identifying with what you want to do, the second stage is going through the process of learning it and the third stage is just sticking with it and learning it until you can play it perfectly. And then, at that point, when you can actually play something without thinking of the mechanics, then it allows you to make an emotional investment, and that’s when it really starts sounding like music. And, for me, right about now, that’s what’s happening with “The Moon and I.”
Do you think intimidation is an important part of your creative process? To be intimidated by an idea before you approach it?
Vai: Well, it’s an interesting question, actually. Intimidated by an idea… That’s something I need to think about. I do come across ideas that are intimidating and it usually stops me from exploring them because in the past, I just put up barriers before. This would be a great idea, but I can’t do that because I don’t have the time, I don’t have the expertise. So those are the things that are intimidating. But I don’t really feel intimidation in that sense. I approach it more on a practical level where I say, “Well, I could do this if I focus all my attention on it.” I would figure out ways to do it, just like anyone else–don’t give up and fail. But you have to balance that with all the other things you do. You need to be practical with things like budgets and stuff like that. But really great things are accomplished by people who take intimidating ideas and their desire and excitement, their passion for the completion of the idea trumps the intimidation. And that happens sometimes too.
So are you laying awake in bed with an idea in your head just thinking about how to pull some big monolithic thing into existence?
Vai: What happens is, if the idea’s compelling enough, you don’t have a choice and the intimidation goes away; as a matter of fact, it’s an excitement. It’s like, I’m with all these people who are, I know they’re the best singers in town and I’m gonna have them come in. And then I’m gonna get my friends who plays the most wild organ that I’ve ever heard, he’s gonna come in. And then I’m gonna put this guitar solo and I’m gonna get better, and this is just gonna happen. You just refuse to take no for an answer. No doesn’t exist and you don’t even think of things like, “This is really hokey. Are your fans going to ‘get’ this?” Or, “Aw, there’s not enough guitar soloing in this. Are the people that just want to hear you soloing going to get this? But her audience is so different than mine.” But all that shit goes away. And then it comes back later.
“Mullach A’tSi” was identified by my eagle-eared (there’s probably a better animal) wife as sounding like an Irish folk song, “She Moved Through The Fair.” Was this song a tribute to that melody?
Vai: It’s more than a tribute. It is the song. It’s a Celtic lullaby. It’s a traditional, old Celtic lullaby.
I owe her a beer.
Vai: I think in Ireland it might be a popular track, but I have a pretty nice library of cultural music, and some of my favorite music is Celtic music. And I had this one record called “Celtic Lullaby,” and it’s just so profoundly beautiful. And this woman–I can’t pronounce her name, but you can get it off the record–Padraigin Ni Uallachain, she’s a popular Celtic singer, and she has this song and it’s part of this compilation. And her performance is so profoundly beautiful, I’ve been listening to this song for 15 years. And this is another way that I like to extend my…when you hear cultural music, the people who perform it have completely different useful sensibilities brought up on different music. You get these phrasings and harmonic sensibilities and all this stuff that they reek of the beautiful culture of particular tradition. And this woman was singing a song in a traditional Celtic way with all these sweet little nuances with her voice. And I thought, “I could be able to do to that on the guitar and I want to do that with melodies. So I did an arrangement track – it’s a public domain traditional track, so you can do whatever you want. And I listened to hear vocal performance and I tried to capture the kinds of nuances she was doing with her voice. They’re very subtle, but they’re very, very, very difficult because I had to relearn ways of playing the guitar because within a one- or two-bar phrase, I might have to bend the notes, slide it, whammy it with the whammy bar, tweak it with the volume knob, and find that inflection on the wah wah to make it sound a particular way. It goes over everybody’s head, but for me, it’s very, very strenuous. But, as a result, I feel like I got this melody that’s just different from things I’ve done in the past. And, to me, it’s painfully exquisite. I know that sounds pretentious. I’m allowed to feel that way.
The song is so delicate it almost sounds like you’re barely touching it with the guitar. It must require a lot of attention as you replicate the performance.
Vai: Yeah, and those things don’t come from your fingers. You have to be in that moment of tenderness. It’s really a beautiful place to be, and for me, it’s hard to capture and maintain because there’s so, so many intense, technical overtones to it. They have to be second nature because the object is, at the end of the day, it has to sound like a beautiful piece of music and not a technical exercise.
And with such a quiet song, it actually accentuates that. No booming drums and keys and bass to hide behind. So, let’s talk about “No More Amsterdam” featuring Aimee Mann, who I understand was your classmate while you were at Berklee. She’s part of a long list of great vocalists you’ve collaborated with. Was there something about this song that was, in your mind, just right for Aimee as opposed to someone else?
Vai: Yeah, I had the track and I thought it was a sweet track. And I wrote the first line of vocal and I just ran into a writer’s block. My wife suggested I call Amy because we’ve known her… my wife was my girlfriend in college, she was best friends with Amy.
Not a bad in!
Vai: Amy and I lived in the same apartment building, doors next to each other. At face value, you’d think something like that would never work, but she’s much more sophisticated than trend mongers. And she heard the track and she really liked it. She wrote the lyrics and the vocal, and it was a beautiful collaboration.
She definitely does a good job of being Aimee Mann in a Steve Vai world. So, I have a technical question. I saw that you’re using the Axe FXII unit for a lot of your sound processing on the album. Is that right?
Vai: No, I’m actually just using it in my live rig. I do use it for guitar effects in the studio when I add the effects, playing the guitar through. When I record, the signal is usually pretty clean and dry unless I’m really looking for something bizarre.
I was asking because of the feature you did with Tosin Abasi in Guitar World, and he’s doing a great job of getting new, young guitarists going. It seems like there’s a big democratization going on right now with elite guitar player – patch sharing on units like the Axe FX, play-through videos and that stuff. I remember being a teenager thinking about getting an Eventide Harmonizer so I could be like Steve Vai, but that was going to take a LOT of lunch money savings to get my hands on. And then I would have no idea what to do with it, but that’s besides the point. Do you think it’s a good time for ambitious, young guitarists to get a better shot at emulating their heroes?
Vai: Throughout history of the guitar, it goes through these permutations. At any point in time, I think that we’ve expanded the boundaries, and we have. When acoustic guitars became electric guitars that was a big step, and when they were amplified, and then somebody invented the wah wah and then the distortion and all these pieces of gear. There was always a great time because there was a discovery, and now, it’s beyond my ability to grasp because there’s so many different ways to manipulate the sound of the guitar through plug-ins and amp modeling and all this stuff. It’s a great time for guitar players who are really interested in that kind of thing, and it’s very, very accessible. So back in the day when you had to spend $100 to buy a phase shifter–in the ’70s, that was a lot of money. So for a hundred dollars, you can buy a plug-in amplifier with thousands of effects. Most of them sound like crap. I use some of them now and then. I have this thing about latency; I can’t stand it. It just doesn’t feel natural. I still use all the stuff to some extent, but it’s a great time. I think it’s always been a great time. There’s always people pushing the envelope.
Speaking of technical tools at your disposal, you did a list of 13 Essential Albums for The Quietus and one entry that caught some raised eyebrows was the inclusion of Skrillex.
Vai: The thing that allowed me to include him in my list is my lack of prejudice for brilliance because that’s the thing that closes people off, I think. Brilliance can show its face in any genre with any tools at any time. And for people who will open up to the in-touch expression of an inspired artist are gonna get something out of anything, even if it’s country music. So when I hear Skrillex, I don’t look at it like I’m supposed to be this instrumental guitar player that only plays one kind of thing a particular way I never veer from, I’ve somehow broken a vow. It’s so ridiculous. If you look at my record collection, you find every Stravinsky record.
I really liked your quote about how of all of the 20th Century Classical composers, Stravinski had the biggest dick.
Vai: Oh, did that quote get out?
It did indeed!
Vai: Skrillex, when I heard it, reminded me in the sense that Stravinsky was a master orchestrator, and in his imagination, he was able to make textures and he expressed those textures and musical ideas through the painstaking process of orchestration, and the blending of a large group of musicians to create a sonic tapestry that was inspired. And I think Skrillex is doing the same thing, just with different tools. And why would there be somebody that’s not brilliant these days as there was in the past? So pretentious–it’s arrogant in the sense that it’s not possible. And one person’s stimulation may not be another’s, and I totally understand and respect that, but I included him in my list because I was captivated by his work.
So, stimulation. I would be remiss if I didn’t relay this story, but a family friend took me to see you play at Toad’s Place in New Haven maybe 12 years ago, and, having had no idea what to expect, she now proudly tells people that your performance gave her a 45-minute orgasm.
Vai: [laughs] You should tell her to meet Stravinski!