The Secret Jewel Box: Interview with Steve
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Steve Vai speaks with Vai.com about The Secret Jewel Box...

The long-awaited Steve Vai box set represents nearly 7 years of focused preparation, and 21 years as a recording artist, for the Grammy Award-winning musician. "I remember when I was working with Frank Zappa, and he had a vault just filled with recorded material," says Vai. "He said it was a reflection of his desire to release everything he's ever recorded, and I just loved the idea of attempting to release everything you've ever recorded, or at least all of the good stuff." For Vai, whose discography is more than 60 titles deep and includes work with artists like Frank Zappa, Joe Jackson, David Lee Roth, Public Image Limited, Alice Cooper, Chick Corea, Alcatrazz, and many more, the project looked like a very exciting endeavor, but hardly an easy task. "Through the years I've contributed a lot to various projects, so I thought it would be interesting to somehow pull them all together to create a comprehensive catalog of all the professional releases that have fallen outside of my solo albums. One thing led to another and soon the idea of putting it all out in a box started making the most sense. Next thing I knew, it looked like a 10-CD box set."

For Vai, who in just the past 4 years has released a double live CD Alive in an Ultra World, the studio solo record The Ultra Zone, and an archives disc called The Seventh Song while he was also busy touring the world, finding the time that a project like the box set demands was not easy. "Every time I went to actually complete the box set and get it out, a project would come along that I couldn't pass up – mostly because the box project was very expensive and time consuming, and if I dedicated all of my time and energy to that, it would have jeopardized the flow of my solo albums and my ability to tour, etc. So it's been chipped away at, then put back on the shelf, then chipped away again, and now finally there's light at the end of the tunnel." The internet presale on Vai.com began on October 22, 2001, and The Secret Jewel Box was released December 11, 2001.

The Box ships with three discs inside [The Elusive Light and Sound; Alcatrazz Disturbing the Peace, and Archives Vol. 2 - Original Recordings of Frank Zappa,] and the remaining 7 CDs will be released and sold separately over the next couple of years. Only 10,000 boxes will be made and all 10 of the CDs will fit into it, spelling out a secret phrase on the CD spines. There are various aspects of the design that fans will find very interesting and surprising, but we can't talk about all of those yet...

In a recent interview with Vai.com, Steve discusses the 10 CDs...


Tell us about the 10 CDs in The Secret Jewel Box, and your decision to release 3 of them in the box now and the remaining 7 CDs separately over the next few years...

The first thing that came to mind when I started developing the box set was getting a compilation of all the music I've ever contributed to film. I started putting this record together called The Elusive Light and Sound – light and sound being the film world – and I set out to license that material from various film and record companies. There's a lot of great stuff on there. It has the entire Crossroads duel, which has never been released on record, plus a lot of material that never made it to that film – there was a duel that took place before my duel with Ralph Macchio's character Eugene, and that duel was with Shuggie Otis. It also has "Love Blood", an intense rock track I recorded for Interview with the Vampire (but it never made it to the film) – it's one of my best solos of that whole era. It's got this version of "Celluloid Heroes" [The Kinks] that I did too, and "The Reaper Rap" and other material from Bill & Ted's Bogus Journey. "Amazing Grace" from Dudes is on the disc, plus the tracks I did for Encino Man, "Get the Hell Out of Here" and "Drive the Hell Out of Here." All of the cues and bits from the PCU score. When you're writing for a film, of course, it's very different than writing for a record, or for anything where there isn't that kind of visual. Some of these pieces are just 15 seconds long, but I decided to include everything.

The second CD is Disturbing the Peace, a record I did on Capitol Records with the band Alcatrazz, which was released in 1985. It was well received among the fans, but it wasn't really a terribly popular record – it never broke into the mainstream. I do find copies now and then, and there are people who are very interested to hear what it sounds like, so I licensed that and it's in the box. It's actually a terrific CD and if you compare it to the material that was being released by various bands at that time, this CD stands out as being accessible, slightly eclectic and different for it's day.

Then there's a series of CDs called Archives, Volumes 1 through (hopefully and eventually) 12. The archives CDs are compilations of music I've contributed to other artists, bonus tracks for Japan, variations of vault material, etc. The first of the archives discs was The Seventh Song - Archives Vol. 1 - Enchanting Guitar Melodies, which is a compilation of the 7th songs from all my CDs, and it was released on Epic Records in September 1999. The Seventh Song was an archives disc because the material was previously released on my records, though there are 3 new tracks too. Although this CD is not made available in the box, it is part of the Archives series.

The second Archives disc is Archives Vol. 2 - Original Recordings of Frank Zappa, and it will only be available in the box set. I selected a handful of songs from my work with Frank, which I think showcased my "strat abuse" and "impossible guitar parts", as Frank would credit me on those records in the liner notes.

To keep the costs down on the box and keep it interesting, and also to make it possible for me to release it at this time, we're doing it a little bit differently. The box will have slots in it for all 10 of the CDs but the box will come with only the first 3 CDs inside, which helps keep the initial cost of the box down and gives collectors something to continually look forward to. The subsequent 7 CDs will be released and sold separately within a few years. Most of the box's limited edition of 10,000 will be sold through my website Vai.com, and a small handful will be distributed in the world by Favored Nations. But primarily it will be exclusive to the website.

The remaining 7 CDs include Archives Vol. 3 and Vol. 4, which are compilations of the music I've contributed to other projects and records, and includes the bonus tracks from Japan. There's the Angelica track, the Jimi Hendrix In From the Storm performances, with the London Symphony Orchestra, and a song from Songs of West Side Story – the duel with Chick Corea. There's a lot of stuff, some of which hasn't been heard yet. These will be released on my birthday, June 6, 2003.

And then there's a CD of 11 of my songs performed and arranged on solo piano by Mike Keneally. I'm not sure of the title yet but it's a beautiful CD, it's acoustic piano and he plays these brilliant renditions of "Bledsoe Blvd", "Junkie", "All About Eve", "Ballerina 12/24", "Die to Live", "Salamanders in the Sun", "Touching Tongues", "Kill the Guy With the Ball", "The God Eaters", "Pig", "Sisters" and "Dying Day".

Then there's a double live Alcatrazz CD called Panic Jungle, recorded in Japan, which was never released. It's very raw, and captures the essence of my playing during that period.

The next disc is called The Classified. When I left Frank Zappa's band, I started my own band called The Classified. It was right before Passion and Warfare – some really cool stuff, with Stu Hamm, Chris Frazier, Tommy Mars, Sue Mathis. I have a lot of recordings of that band that have never been released, so I want to pull a lot of those together and put it out. It has songs like "No Pockets", "Mighty Messengers", a piece called "Millions of Tiny Hearts", "Prelude to Lowengrim". There's a really wicked piece on there called "The Lights are On", and a great song called "Fast Note People". There is a lot of other material from that period too, which will be added to round out the record – it may include stuff I have from that period but not necessarily of the band.

And the last disc is still in the conceptual stages right now. It's called Hot Chunks, it's an odd potpourri of little dialogs, music... I'm an audio pack rat. For years I would always carry around a tape recorder or a DAT recorder or just anythng that could record, and I'd record everything – my parents, source music, parties, interesting conversations, weird stuff that happens on tour. It's a completely eclectic art thing.

How much fun is it, as a musician and a music lover, to be talking about the release of your very own box set?

I'm really into these eclectic, ambitious projects, and whenever I'm preparing to release a CD I see it as another opportunity to do something interesting and creative. To have this box set on the horizon now, it's like Christmas.

Why did you choose to release those 3 CDs in the box? Why these three in particular...

Two of the three – the second Archives CD and the Alcatrazz CD – I don't have the rights to release them outside of the box, so that's the only way I can release those records. But I didn’t want to release the box with just those CDs, I wanted something with a little more substance, so The Elusive Light and Sound is really a brilliant CD.

Will there be an aspect of the design which threads the releases together? Could that explain the puzzle piece in the booklet for “The Seventh Song”?

Well, the Archives volume is constructed so that hopefully by the time I’m dead, there will be 12 Archives records released [laughs], and if you open up the artwork on each CD, the artwork will be part of a puzzle. Bit if you line up the spines of all 10 CDs in the box, there’s a message that’s spelled out.

How difficult was it to pull this thing together from a legal and licensing standpoint?

That’s the hardest thing. You can’t do anything if people don’t return your phone calls. The stuff from Bill & Ted took years of constant pounding and legal fees and negotiating, because nobody cares about the cues that Steve Vai wrote for Bogus Journey. I don’t own them, and I have to get the rights to them, so they went from the movie studio to the record company that was associated with the movie studio, then that company was sold, and then that company was sold, and it’s just extraordinary how complicated it gets, and how many phone calls need to be made to deal with that stuff. It’s extremely expensive and time consuming, it’s so much harder than making music. It’s harder than anything, because you have to deal with people who just don’t care about what you’re doing. And that’s so absolutely frustrating, because when I’m here in my studio I can do anything I want, and nobody can stop me. I have complete artistic freedom when I’m here, there’s nothing in my way, and my only problem is that I have more ideas than I have time to complete them. But when we have to rely on so many different companies that control the rights to the various music, that's the most difficult thing we have to deal with, because they're big companies with a different agenda.

Why have you decided to release it independently, and will there be any distribution beyond the website?

I had engaged in negotiations with Sony but… this project is very dear to me, it’s very important to me how it comes out. It's completely a labor of love, really. There’s no real money to be made, it’s an eclectic art project for me. I mean, 10 CDs from Steve Vai? That aren’t his past releases? I'm sure Led Zeppelin could get away with that.

But that’s how I wanted it, and the box itself is very elaborate. Most labels would never consider this kind of project. It’s so expensive and there’s not enough profit margin. It’s all those things that an artist wants to do but a label may not want to do.

And as far as the financial burden of constructing something like this, I didn’t want to put that burden on Favored Nations. I did it all myself, and the idea is to release it exclusively on the website, though there will be a number of them available through a distributor. It’s not the kind of thing where people are going to order fifty thousand copies. It’s a huge box that retailers don’t want anything to do with. Who wants a 10-CD box set from Steve Vai in their store? It takes up space, you know?

That kind of stuff never stops me, though, because I'm really excited about this box. It's a vision and a dream and I want to make it real. That's how I get my kicks. That's what I'm here for.
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