Steve Vai: ‘I want to create an unclassifiable catalogue of music that’s undiluted by anybody else…’
Steve Vai was born on this day in 1960. In this extended version of his recent interview for Classic Rock he talk about his new album, his insecurity and his drive to be original… Words: Kevin Murphy
Steve Vai has come a long way since his younger years playing with Frank Zappa, who once said his guitar playing sounded like a ‘deranged mosquito’. The three-time Grammy winner has more Best Guitarist awards than there are notes in one of his solos. Playing triple-necked and seven-string guitars, in addition to developing his signature Ibanez JEM, has elevated his status to that of guitar god. Disciples can now bathe in The Story Of Light, Vai’s first studio album in seven years. The follow-up to Real Illusions: Reflections, the new record includes a Celtic lullaby, a Blind Willie Johnson cover, a song inspired by a climbing rose bush, and some ‘blazing shit’. What else would you expect?
Are you still ambitious?
I’m ambitious within reason. I’m ambitious for things that may not necessarily be career-oriented. But I think a better word for it is ‘excited’. I’m excited when I get a creative idea. It’s fun and I just feel so grateful that I have the tools to make these ideas realities. I’m more excited than ambitious. ‘Ambitious’ sounds like there’s things you want to achieve that you may not be able to.
I was extremely ambitious and it became a real problem because you feel a lot of pressure when you have too much ambition to ‘Achieve! Achieve! Achieve!’ That creates discomfort because you can’t be in the now. It’s very hard to enjoy what you’re doing if you always have an ambition to complete something in the future because the future never comes.
You once said: ‘I don’t feel like I’ve made a record that expresses my full potential on guitar.’ Is that still the case?
Yes. There’s little snippets here and there, but a record of pure guitar, the focus is purely on guitar, I haven’t really done that. If you listen to the new record, there’s a story there and there’s keyboards, there’s lyrics, there’s some simple rhythm and it’s not 100 per cent focused on guitar. But if you take my catalogue and extract various tracks and you create a compilation, I think you’ll have my potential as a guitarist.
It’s been seven years since your last studio album, Real Illusions: Reflections. Why has it taken so long to record a follow-up?
I had got involved in so many different projects since my last studio record in 2005. I composed and recorded and rehearsed a double live orchestra record, and it took a couple of years and it came with a video. This was String Theories. Then I did a lot of Alien Guitar Secrets masterclasses, where I tour and do seminars, which was really fun. Then I really wanted to get on tour, so I put a band together and did a couple of months.
I did a European and American tour. That’s when I did Where The Wild Things Are, with the two violins, and that was a lot of fun. Then I was commissioned to compose two symphonies for these performances in Holland with the North Netherlands Orchestra. Composing a symphony takes months and months, and I had to do two of them! All of this added up, and the next thing I know, I pick my head up and it’s seven years later and I’m like, ‘What the hell happened?’
The Story Of Light is the follow-up to Real Illusions: Reflections. What prompted you to work on it now?
I felt that I had taken so much time, and I really needed to contribute to the Real Illusions trilogy because on those records the production is really intense. They take a long time to put together. And I just turned 52. When you think that a project can take a year or two years sometimes, and you start listing all the things you want to do, and you start counting them up by the years, you realise you’ve got to be really careful with your time. You can’t mess around. So I decided to do Real Illusions Part II. And the title came to me. It was one of those moments where you kind of sit back and, if you’re lucky, the gods of inspiration will sprinkle some fairy dust on you and something comes. And I came up with that title: The Story Of Light.
The trilogy has been described as being cinematic, almost operatic in scope.
My plan for Real Illusions, which is kind of a very in-depth, heady concept, was to eventually release three CDs and then, at the end, put them all together in the right order. The records are not like the concept could be deciphered by listening to one record, then the next, and then the next, it’s all in dishevelled order. Maybe it’s not really meant to be experienced as a concept record at this point. But when you’re being artistic you can do whatever you want – there’s no rules.
There are some very grandiose ideas behind this album, which is described as ‘the journey of a man driven mad by grief, intertwining tragedy, revelation, enlightenment and redemption’.
The story, which you can loosely follow through the music, is based on this guy. It’s the story of this town where these people live and they seem like normal people, but they all have these intense stories – which we all do, which are stranger than fiction really – and this one guy is driven mad by something he has done. The story takes place through his eyes, so everything has a tint of absurdity to it. At the end of the story, he writes this book and it’s called Under It All, and the first chapter is called The Story Of Light.
How thorough a storyline have you developed for the album?
I’ve conceptualised elements of it. It’s not written. It has a mental outline.
On the album’s opening title track, a woman is reading a passage in Russian. Why did you choose Russian?
I thought about all the different languages that I could have used. I’ve spent a good amount of time in Russia, and there’s just something about Russian. It has the sharp edges, but it also has this romantic quality to it. It’s an exotic-sounding language, so it worked for me on this song.
So she’s actually reading from this book Under It All?
And where does the dialogue from the book come from?
It comes from this character, Drake Mason. Captain Drake Mason.
So, just to clarify, Drake Mason is actually a creation of yours?
Yes. He’s driven insane. And what happens is this stranger comes to their town and he’s like this shaman or priest, and he builds this giant church – not in the conventional sense. In Real Illusions: Reflections there’s a piece called Building The Church, and this is the scene where he builds this church out of the ether. This is all in the mind of Drake Mason. Then the townspeople come there. And there’s this reflecting pool in this place. When they look into this pool, they see various dimensions of their personality. They see their surface self.
A lot of the songs are based on what various people see when they look into this pond. Everybody has a different way of understanding the world, and everybody creates their own reality. If you’re exposed to something somebody says or something you see, or you learn something in school, if it resonates with you and makes sense to you, before you know it it becomes a belief. And once you believe something long enough it becomes your truth – you make it your truth. And once something is your truth long enough, it becomes your reality. So everybody’s reality is virtually based on what they believe.
You’ve thought the story through very thoroughly, but it would be really difficult to interpret much of what you’ve set out to express just by listening to the record.
Oh, I can’t imagine who could understand it the way it is! It’s impossible, because a lot of it’s just songs that I listen to and make a story around. And the story isn’t even revealed, except for maybe a few sentences here and there. So you’re not alone. But it’s part of the fun.
So it’s not critical, from your point of view, that anyone ‘gets it’?
As a matter of fact, the point is to not get it all at once. I don’t want to do that, because it’s a much grander plan, and at any point in time our perspective on the world and who we are changes. It can change like that [snaps fingers]. And I don’t feel like I’m entirely qualified at this point to create this whole story the way that I want it to be, because I’m still working on being the person I want to be. So it leaves me a lot of artistic liberty and artistic discovery.
So, just to give it to you in a nutshell. The first record has a bunch of songs that you could listen to as a guitar fan and put the record away, and so does the second record, and so will the third. But if you’re one of those people who love to fetish the spine of the CD and the bloodstream of it, you can start reading into some of the liner notes, you can read the interviews, you can read the lyrics, and you can start to put together these pieces and it could be fun. And if you’re not interested in it, it doesn’t matter.
After all these three records, the plan is to release one product that has maybe three or four albums’ worth of material, where it has all of these songs from these records, but now they’re in the proper order, now some of the instrumental songs have vocals, now there’s characters playing the parts appropriately, and now there’s all in between bits so it’s like a real opera, but not an opera.
I hate operas. And I hate that term ‘rock opera’, because then it means you have to do an operatic style with rock music. But it’s nothing like that. I use the word ‘opera’ because opera represents a grand scheme of sorts.
What is the most memorable thing someone has ever said about your music?
I don’t remember! You’re going to have to leave it at that. But I’ve never taken things seriously, except when someone’s telling me that I suck. I’ve always had this deep insecurity. When I was younger I didn’t even tell people I was a guitar player, because guitar players are cool and I didn’t think I was cool. I never associated the word ‘musician’ with myself because, to me, a musician was this sacred, special person that was in touch with magic and had the ability to create, out of the ether, sounds at a command.
I always idealised what a musician is and I never had the confidence to consider myself a musician, so I never used that word towards myself for many years. Then I realised, fuck this shit, I’m a musician! Don’t be such a wimp. Stand up! You are a musician. You love music. You hear music in your head. You can see music. You can hear other people’s music and know what they’re doing – that’s what a musician does. Live up to it, Vai.
When did you begin recording your new album?
In January 2011.
How long did it take to complete?
A year-and-a-half. But there was a lot of stuff in between. I did little tours here and there. I think, if you were to take everything and compress it, it probably took me about six months.
Where was it recorded?
I recorded it at the Harmony Hut, which is my new studio in my home in Encino, and also at the Mothership, which is at my house here in Hollywood. I don’t record in public, usually.
Did you have anyone producing it?
No, I produced it. I produce all my records. I produce, I engineer, I record, I write it – most of it. On this record there are more songs that I didn’t write than on any of my other records, I think. I live in a bubble, and it’s okay for me. My bands, it’s not a democracy. I know what I want and I go about doing it. My goal is to create a relatively unclassifiable catalogue of music that’s undiluted by anybody else’s creative vision or input. And why not?
Indeed. It’s got your name on the cover.
Yeah. I contribute to a tremendous amount of projects where I do collaborate, and it’s fun, but I just don’t want my music diluted. And sometimes it’s to the detriment of any potential big sales I could have, but I don’t care. It doesn’t matter. I’m not in the business to sell tremendous amounts of records. I’m extremely fortunate and grateful for the audience I do have, because it keeps me going and allows me to do the bizarre things I do.
Did the album turn out how you envisaged it?
I hope this doesn’t come off as pretentious, but it came out much better. It usually does. I had to hack a lot of songs, and usually those are the songs that I approach where I feel like I need to do something for a particular audience. They never turn out having the spark that I feel I need to have in a song to make it to the record. I probably have about six or eight songs that didn’t make it to the record.
Are we going to have to wait another seven years before we get the final part of the Real Illusions trilogy?
You may have to wait longer than that. But there’ll be other projects in between. The way that I recorded The Story Of Light is really intensive. It takes a lot of energy and a lot of focus. And I enjoy that, but sometimes I just like to do simple things. I don’t want everything to be these laborious, heady stories. I don’t think my next record is going to be Real Illusions Part III.
(Prior to the interview, at photographer Neil Zlozower’s Hollywood studio, Zloz presented Vai with a signed and framed photograph of Tom Waits.) People might be surprised to learn that you’re a huge fan of Tom Waits, because your music seems almost antithetical to his.
Have you ever considered venturing into that type of music yourself?
To be inspired by somebody doesn’t necessarily mean you’ve got to duplicate their music. And how do you duplicate Tom Waits?
Would you ever cover a Tom Waits song?
I would. I would love to, but it would be a very difficult thing to do. It would be like covering a Zappa song. They’re so uniquely idiosyncratic of the creator that you have to give it a completely different spin. [Adopts gravely Waits voice] You’re never going to hear me go like that! But when nobody’s around I sit down and play Tom Waits songs. I just sit with an acoustic guitar.
People would be interested to hear that.
People might be interested, but you also have to weigh in the amount of creative real estate you’re putting out into the world and what’s most important to you. I love a lot of people’s music, including Tom’s, but my music is more important to me than anything and I only have a little bit of time.
Are there any young guitarists out there right now that you admire?
I just did this interview yesterday with Tosin Abasi from Animals As Leaders. It’s this whole new wave of, I think they call it, it’s this weird word, ‘dgunk’ [djent, actually]. It’s, like, the sound that the guitar makes. It’s very academic. But he creates these wonderful harmonic tapestries, and he’s a real shredder, and he also does a lot of interesting things with rhythmic juxtapositions and polymetric things. But I don’t really go out and listen to a lot of guitar players.
Do you hear your influence in other guitarists?
I don’t hear a lot of guitar players trying to sound like me. You hear some riffs and stuff, but it’s not easily identifiable. Like, if you listen to Edward [Van Halen], or Yngwie [Malmsteen], or Joe [Satriani], they’re all amazing. I don’t even consider myself in the same contributional arena as these guys, but it’s easily understandable, it’s easier to emulate.
You once said of your renowned ostentatious guitar style: ‘I think subconsciously you’re trying to impress the people in the audience rather than trying to make a musical statement.’ Do you feel like you’re still trying to prove something?
Less than I used to. I love the idea of being able to have control of the instrument. I know that people are impressed with fast playing, so there was a time when I felt like I needed to play fast to be impressive, because I was trying to find an identity. I was trying to garner respect. Having said that, there were a lot of people that saw through it in some of the stuff I did.
I’m just trying to be honest. Occasionally I’ll play fast because I can, but I don’t really even play that fast compared to some others. As a matter of fact I hardly play fast any more because I’m not as interested in itÖ But there’s some pretty blazing shit on the record [laughs].
Do you think you’ve reached a point where people would be disappointed if there wasn’t some ‘blazing shit’ on your records?
I never reached that point. I always felt I was at that point because, to some degree, it’s true – a lot of people would be very disappointed if they don’t hear me shred. But I don’t shred entirely for that reason. A part of me says: ‘You better do some shredding now because if not, your fans that like you to shred are going to be unhappy.’ I’m conscious of what the people expect
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