By Jeb Wright
Few men can claim the ultimate right to the Throne of the Electric Guitar. Even fewer can claim that they will remain on that throne for all time. Jimi Hendrix, Jeff Beck, Eric Clapton, Edward Van Halen, Joe Satriani and Steve Vai all come to mind whenever people talk about the Best of the Best. Technically, and creatively, perhaps no one is more talented than Steve Vai, though. He blends fret board wizardry with soundscapes of passion and warfare with creative and mind-blowing escapades of life, itself. Through music, Vai exists, through music, he lives. Through music he will live on, forever.
The Story of Light is the second in a trilogy that, for Vai, will be among his life’s greatest work. In the interview that follows we discuss the new album in detail, along with how Steve looks at the universe around him.
Talented, creative and intelligent, Vai is on a mission to tell his tale, even if he has to wait for more life experiences to take shape and be woven into the trilogy. Its okay, though, as Steve relishes every intense second, both experiencing life, evolving and capturing the moment forever in his music, sometimes simultaneously.
Jeb: I have been listening to the new album and I am very impressed. This is the second in what will be a trilogy.
Steve: When I started Real Illusions, which was my last studio record, I wanted to do a concept record, but I didn’t want to do it in the conventional way. I wondered what I could do in order to make it different. I wanted it to span a long period of time, as it is probably going to be one of my life’s greatest works. I wanted to break it up into little pieces and put it out, not in a linear way.
If you listen to Real Illusions, then you will just hear a studio album, as you will not be able to put all of the pieces together. If you read the liner notes, then you can start to put little pieces together. The idea is the same with The Story of Light. It is like Real Illusions, as it is a studio album. That said, the songs are all based on characters in the story, but they are not in the right order. The third part of the trilogy, which I will do sometime in the future, will be similar.
What I would, then, like to do is to take all of the three records and put them out in a box set. I could do some new stuff to glue them all together. I would take the songs and put them in the correct order, so it would flow like a story. You would be able to actually follow the story.
Jeb: That is very creative. It is like a Quentin Tarantino movie done with music. Was telling the story out of order in your head from the beginning?
Steve: That is a good analogy. Yes, it was in my head to do it this way from the start, absolutely.
Jeb: To coin an old term, that’s bitchin’ man.
Steve: That was my favorite term that Frank Zappa used to use. When he got really excited, he would go, “That’s bitchin’.”
Jeb: Have you, in your head, formulated the final part of the trilogy?
Steve: One of the realizations that I have is that as we go through life, our perspectives change and our understanding of life, and ourselves, changes. Any particular point in your life is like a little snapshot in time.
I have always been very interested in change. I make it a mental prayer to become more aware and better as a person. If that is your desire then those things come to you. There are a lot of things about reality that are still evolving for me. I want to include all of these things going on with me into the story. The reason why I have spanned this out over such a long period of time is because I am evolving across this time. Does that make sense?
Jeb: Sure it does. The story has to take a long time to be told because you are still going through things within your own experiences, ergo, it is going to have to stretch across a long period of time.
Steve: Exactly, that is what I was trying to say. It was obvious to me.
Jeb: Ad you do this, there will be a lot of guys, mainly guitar players, who are going to hate that these albums have lyrics in a lot of the songs. How do you put up with that part of your fan base that has no interest in hearing you, or anyone else, sing? They just want you to shut up and play your guitar.
Steve: When you’re an artist, you can’t start trying to please everybody because if you do try to do that then you’re going to warp your own potential. What I’ve discovered is that if you go after the thing that is most exciting to you and gives you the most juice…we all have unlimited potential in the creative things that we want to do.
What you just described would be a stupid reason for me to abandon my own potential. I learned that over time. I have been haunted by the press, as I may be the most criticized guitarist of all time.
When you put your musical creation out for people to criticize, and someone doesn’t like it, then the musician feels that the person just does not like that particular song, or album, they don’t like me. I have had to learn that is not the case. There are people that do not like Elton John, or the Beatles. What are you going to do? I am fortunate because when I get an idea to do something that is very compelling then it dwarfs my insecurities. On the new album, I do “John the Revelator” and it is just totally unexpected.
Jeb: When I saw you remaking a Blind Willie Johnson song it made me think, “What the hell is Steve going to do with this?”
Steve: I bet you thought, “What does he think he is doing?”
Jeb: I am not a blues purist, so I was looking forward to seeing what you did. Purists may not feel the same way.
Steve: I appreciate purism but I am not a purist.
Jeb: That has always been a powerful song but you bring power in new ways to the tune.
Steve: I felt it was powerful when I heard Blind Willie Johnson sing that song. I went out and studied this guy. I bought books on him and I have every one of his recordings and I have listened to them all many times. He is a very effective and powerful singer. When someone like that excites you then it can trigger ideas of the same kind of power. When I heard him sing that I said, “Holy shit, I’ve got to do this song and I’ve got to get some big huge guitars on it. I’ve got to get someone to scream.”
I heard the Counterpoints version, which has the second piece. The second part of the song, “The Book of the Seven Seals” was actually one piece with “John the Revelator,” and I cut them in half. I wanted a big choir singing with heavy sounding guitars underneath it with low bends, tuned down with an octave divider. When I do things like that then it makes it sound like really heavy rock music, which I am known for. By the same token, you never hear that kind of thing underneath someone like Blind Willie Johnson. The choir sounds like Midwestern, white, Republicans – I mean no disrespect by that. I mean that it is very clean and straight and it brings a real contrast.
After I finished it, I thought that it came out better than I thought it would. I still had no idea what people were going to think about it. I played it for some people and they said, “I don’t even know what to say about that.” I don’t know…I like it. It is an example of a compelling idea that I had to do. Can you imagine if I had succumbed to the critics who said, “I don’t want to hear Steve Vai with vocals?” What good would that have done me? I don’t believe that shit anyway.
Jeb: I think you should open your show with that song, man.
Steve: [laughing] You never know. The cool thing about the song was finding Beverly McClellan. I was going to sing it, but I knew I couldn’t sing it and do justice to it. Tom Waits would have been great singing it, but he was unavailable.
I was hosting this event for the Academy and Beverly took to the stage and she completely floored me. I was totally captivated by the way she sang. I thought, “There’s my singer for “John the Revelator.” She was more than happy to do it and she nailed it in two takes. I was so attracted to this girl’s expression that I asked her to come out and tour with me and to open the show with an acoustic set. She will then come out and sing “John the Revelator” with me.
Every tour, when you start getting out and doing all of the prep work and you start talking to people, they all go, “This is really nice.” You can tell when they really like it, though. I am thrilled that everyone I am talking to is shaking their head and talking about this song.
Jeb: The title track does that to me as well. I love how the vocals are in a foreign language.
Steve: The song “The Story of Light” is kind of an extension from Real Illusions, where I use these seven string guitars and a giant wall of beautifully tensioned, distortion drenched chords that really create an atmosphere. They are really glorious chords. I wanted the second half to be very melodic. I didn’t want it to be about just a guitar solo, I wanted it to be about a specific melody.
The Story of Light, itself, in a nutshell, is about Captain Drake Mason, who at one point writes a book. He presents his book, which is titled Under It All, to the town. The first chapter is called The Story of Light. On the record, the lyrics are printed in English, but I didn’t want to present them that way because it is too obvious. I wanted to do them in another language to add mystique.
I went through all of these languages in my head trying to find the right one. Every language has a dynamic to it. Italian sounds like music, and French is effeminate, so it sounds beautiful, in a way. German has a lot of rough edges and comes off very masculine. All of those had too much of a tilt. Russian is such a beautiful language because it has just the right amount of rough edges and just the right amount of romance. Still, there is an authority to it. That is why I decided to do it in Russian.
Jeb: Talk about how you got involved with Amiee Mann?
Steve: That is a great story. Amiee and I went to college together in Berkley and we actually lived in the same apartment building. I saw her all the time. We didn’t hang out but we would say, “Hey, how you doing” and stuff like that.
Her good friend was my girlfriend, who is now my wife. She was in a band with Amiee, at the time. Pia, who has been my wife for over thirty years, has always kept up with Amiee’s music. I was, therefore, always exposed to Amiee’s music. Her lyrics are like poetry and her voice has such vulnerability to it.
I had a track that I was going to make instrumental but it was screaming for a lyric, but I couldn’t come up with a lyric. Pia said that I should call Amiee, but I told her that Amiee would not be interested in being on an album by some heavy metal shredder from the ‘80’s. I couldn’t have been more wrong.
She liked the track and she agreed to write the lyrics and sing on it. It ended up being a great collaboration. I do not collaborate. I am a rumor in my own room and a legend in my own mind. I don’t want my music diluted by the outside world, and all of that pretentious shit. She showed me that there are a lot of talented people out there that can really help my music grow; that is what she taught me.
Jeb: You have said that you’re a ‘seeker of spiritual equilibrium.’ Can you expound?
Steve: In a way, I think we all are. Words can be pretty confusing when you start using words like ‘seeker’ and ‘God.’ People go to preconceived ideas that they have from their upbringing. I am one of those guys who really wonder what is going on here, and what this is all about, and what are we really doing? You build your own belief system in life, which becomes your truth, which then becomes your reality.
For me, I’ve always been really intense in my life. I was a very incredibly intense young man. Through my spiritual research, I’ve found ideas that resonate very deeply that bring me a sense of calm, or of equilibrium.
Jeb: Your live shows have always included very visual representations of the music. In fact, you go out of your way to do that. What new ideas have come up for this tour?
Steve: I am very excited about this tour. On the last tour, we had two violinists and, so, on this tour, I wanted to add another unique dimension to the show, as this is really just as fun to me as building a record. I wanted to do something this time out that was very different, as the two violin players had worked really well. I found this harpist named Debora Henson. She is considered The Hip Harpist. She plays a strap-on harp. She plays with distortion and does all of these wild bends, and she does a lot of arpeggiated runs. I knew that it would work, but I had no idea that it would work this well. You’ve never seen anything like that. It is really entertaining.
Jeb: Are you going to do a live DVD of the tour?
Steve: It is already in the works. You have to document these things.
Jeb: I was wondering today if that, way back, when you were the hotshot heavy metal kid, did you have the idea, then, that you would take your music to the levels you have taken it? You defy musical genres now.
Steve: I do have a pretty hefty ego, and back then, it was much more at the forefront. The ego always has the tendency to run into a brick wall because you’re never going to always be the best. You’re never going to remain satisfied.
If I tried to put my finger on it, for me, when it think back, the guitar was always this really electrifying instrument. When I was a little kid and I would even look at a guitar I would get wood. When I started playing the guitar, the biggest thrill of my life was to think of something and not be able to play it, and, then, work on it until I could play it. It really gives me such an amazing sense of accomplishment. That has always been my juice. Everything in my career has really come from my love of doing that.
I never really sought the gig with Frank Zappa, or David Lee Roth, or with Whitesnake, or any of the others. I just loved the guitar and these things just came. I grew up in the latter part of the ‘70s and I was totally enamored with the great rock guitar players of that time in bands like Deep Purple, Queen, Led Zeppelin, Jethro Tull and Alice Cooper. It was that heaviness in the rock, at that time that infiltrated my musical sensibilities. By the same token, I’ve always been fascinated by composition. I could actually compose music before I could play the guitar. My brain mixes these things together, along with my desire for spiritual equilibrium and I write these songs.
Jeb: I have to ask you about trying out for Frank Zappa. I have heard Frank singled out people to try to make them fail a little bit in order to push themselves forward.
Steve: Holy smokes that was every day with Frank. One of Frank’s greatest brilliances was that he was able to identify with your potential better than you were. Because you had such respect for him, you wanted to rise to the occasion. He would take you to your limit.
I remember my audition with Frank. I was a twenty year old kid and I was in this room with his band. I was like a deer in the headlights. Whenever I played, however, I was extremely confident. I remember Frank picking up his guitar and playing something very critically. Frank was not a precise player; he was more of a visceral soloist. He played a line on his guitar and he said, “Play this back to me in 16th notes.” I thought for a minute and I played it back. He said, “Okay, now add this to it” and he would play something. I played it back and he said, “Play it in 7/8.” I thought about it and I played it in 7/8th. He said, “Play it in 7/8 Reggae.’ I played it back. He then said to add something to it that I had to really think about. I realized that what he asked me to do was impossible. Nobody could do what he asked on the guitar, I just didn’t see how it could be done. I said, “Uh, sorry, that’s impossible.” Frank looked at me and said, “Oh, well, I hear Linda Ronstadt is looking for a guitar player.” It was Frank’s way of seeing what you could do. For those of us that got what Frank was doing, his catalog changes the quality of your life.
Jeb: My last one is about David Lee Roth, who you played with. Have you heard the new Van Halen album, and what do you think about it?
Steve: I bought it right away. I love Edward and to this day, I still like Dave’s voice. I still like the sound of Van Halen. I was a little bit worried if Edward was going to be able to play because he has been through so much. I was very happy to hear how well he is playing. I not only think he is absolutely kicking ass, I think he is sounding as good as he has ever sounded. Dave sounds great too. He is hitting notes that he didn’t have when I was with him. I think the record, itself, is very kinetic, as there is a lot going on and I can’t listen to it all at once; I listen to it in pieces. I think it is a very good piece of work.
Jeb: Last one: The Eat ‘em and Smile band was amazing. Yet, did you know that it was a short term gig for you?
Steve: I loved the idea of being in that band and I loved being in that band. The ‘80’s were a great time to be a rock star. Dave was a great guy to be with because he really knew how to throw a party. In that situation, I can say that anything you can dream of probably happened – any type of sex and drugs – everything was available. I was pretty grounded, as the music was really always the most important thing for me. I dabbled a bit with certain things, but the music was most important.
When I was contributing to those bands, like Dave’s, I knew that I could make it work. In the back of my mind, I knew that there was another kind of music that I was going to make. All of that rock star stuff was really fun, but I knew back then, in the back of my mind, it was fleeting.
When I quit Dave, I really figured that it was over. I really thought that no one would recognize me anymore because the music I was going to make didn’t sound anything like what I was doing with him. I was surprised when my solo album went so well. I am really, really grateful.
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