3 June 2013 – Steve Vai Interview Questions, for Metal Forge website, Australia
You’re regarded by many as one of the all time masters of guitar. I’m sure there were (and still are) countless hours of practise and rehearsal, but at an early age, learning from the legendary Joe Satriani, did guitar seem to come naturally or did you really have to work hard to develop your talent to the point where it matched your desire to play?
Music came very natural and easy to me. I seemed to instinctively understand it at a very early age. I could see music and understood the infrastructure of the building blocks but the guitar did not come so easy. I was not natural at it and had to work very hard, harder than most people I believe. Bu I truly enjoyed the process because there was nothing more rewarding than thinking of something that I could not do, then working on it, then all of sudden you can do it. Then you keep doing it over and over and it becomes natural and starts to sound like music. That’s an amazing pay off. I was addicted to the feeling that gave me so putting in many hours on the guitar was a sheer joy. I was not really good at much of anything else. In school I failed English and Social Studies, as they just didn’t make common sense to me. Spelling English makes not much sense because it’s not necessarily a phonetic language like Italian. And all the rules and regulations were just a waste of time to know. Obviously when I got older I took an interest and got y writing together a bit.
But History was phenomenally mind boggling to me. The study of war seemed useless and I could not retain dates for things that meant nothing to me. I felt there was too much of an emphasis on the past and not enough on the present or future.
But I seemed to completely understand and embrace, and extrapolate on the language of music instantly. Too bad that’s not considered something to be acknowledged and cultivated in the contemporary school curriculum of the United States.
What drove you then to dedicate yourself to mastering the guitar and what drives you now to continue to create?
S- The same thing all along and that’s coming up with an exciting musical idea then setting out to make it real in the world. It makes everyday like Christmas.
Do you still feel like you are learning and if so, in what way?
S- I believe that we are all learning in vast ways every moment of every day. We are never really the same people one moment after the next. Every experience we have is a learning one whether we see it that way or not.
For me the leaps and bounds have been in the emerging awareness of my own spiritual core and the fact that my spiritual core is the same as is everyone’s and that the most important thing you can do in life is embrace this very moment.
It stands to reason that Joe was a major influence on your early years, but who else did you regard as being your heroes at the time and how did they influence your early style?
S- Our influences can come from places that you would least expect and not within our line of work at all, and they can have the most profound impact on us. But I’ll stick with the musical ones.
I was a teenager in the 70’s and was heavily into the progressive Rock scene and rock scene with bands like Led Zep, Queen, Jethro Tull, ELP, Deep Purple, Hendrix Then I discovered Frank Zappa and contemporary classical music. That was a life changer. At one point I discovered and ventured into fusion and Jazz.
In all the great guitar players I have been inspired by I would never feel comfortable playing their riffs. I always felt like… why, they do it so much better and hey, they are doing it already. I was always on the look out for my own unique voice on the instrument and if there was any clear message I got from my heroes it was just that. Find your own voice. It’s undeniably there you just have to have the courage to trust it.
When people ask me how did I come up with my style the answer is, It’s the only thing I thought about my whole life.
What trends, equipment or styles have come and gone in guitar over the last 30 to 40 years which stick in your mind as being either particularly good or bad, and have they stood the test of time?
S- For me I look for the good in all the various styles that come and go and elements of all can stand the test of time. The blues and rock guitar attitude is still prevelant and is at the core of what I do, maybe not traditionally but in a morphed sort of way. The use of the whammy bar was big when Hendrix starting abusing it and that kind of stuck but these days the 7 string and tuning down is a focal point in the new metal guitar scene. Actually it’s not even new anymore.
Technology will continue to evolve and the way that we create, distribute, purchase and listen to music has changed tremendously over the past decades and will continue to change. The one thing that won’t change is the need for the creative element behind the music and that’s the musician.
As well as you’re distinguished solo band career, you’ve played with some legendary performers and acts including Frank Zappa, David Lee Roth, the G3 project and Whitesnake. What are your personal highlights in a career which has included so many accolades?
S- As you can imagine there are many things I could site as “career highlights” that I think you may be referring to such as winning Grammys, playing my first sold out show at Madison Square Garden, reading complimentary things in the press from my heroes, having my first platinum solo album, etc. etc. All of these things, and many more, are truly fine and I am extraordinarily grateful for them and never take them for granted, but I would have to say the thing that is a career highlight for me, always was, is now and always will be, is when a unique and exciting musical idea arises in me and I bring it into the world with the tools at my disposal and it turns out better than I could have expected.
I feel as though I’m fulfilling some kind of life obligation and using the gifts that the Universe provides to do something that perhaps a small handful of people find fulfilling to experience.
In some ways I feel we are all capable of doing this within our own natural gifts, and so many of us do but they may not be perceived in the world as “great achievements”. They are still as valid as any other achievement because I don’t believe the Universe measures success the same way the human mind does.
Given that you are regarded by so many as a master of the guitar, what are your thoughts on not being recognised by some in the media; for example not being included in Rolling Stone’s list of the best 100 guitar players of all time in 2011, particularly given that some of the inclusions and rankings in this list would raise some eyebrows?
S- There was a time when something like the Rolling Stones list would have disturbed me, (and it did but that was before the one that came out in 2011) but I came to the realization that those kind of thoughts and feelings are all ego based and can only induce suffering and stress. When you create an identity for yourself that is based on your egoic mind, life is nothing but stress and suffering because you can never be famous enough, rich enough, good looking enough etc. etc. to satiate the ego.
Liberation is letting go of the need to find yourself in things of the world and understanding that all you need is the appreciation of life in this very moment. When that transition starts to happen, all that other stuff dissolves and there is peace. I am not claiming to be egoless but more and more everyday I get closer to this reality and this changes the quality of your whole life.
It’s still nice to be recognized for your contributions but these are just lists that somebody makes based on their or some others likes or dislikes and for me to allow that to dictate my happiness really doesn’t make sense. I don’t make my identity dependant on a list. And when I’m not recognized then it really doesn’t matter. Things in the world have an importance but ultimately nothing is really that important.
You’ve said that your last 2 studio albums are intended to form the first 2 instalments of a Real Illusions trilogy, which will form a concept trio of albums. Can you explain a little about the concept and theme, the inspiration behind the concept and how the 3 albums will tie together when they are complete?
S- The Story of Light is the second installments of songs in a quadrilogy I am working on. The first record was my last studio record and it’s called “Real Illusions: Reflections”. The new record is actually called “The Story of Light, Real Illusions: of A”.
In the last scene of the story the main character, Captain Drake Mason, presents a book that he wrote to the towns people. The name of the book is “Under it All” and the first chapter is called, “The Story of Light”. The Light that is referred to is the light of consciousness. The title just came to me.
The story does not unfold in the proper order and at this time you can only get elements of the story by reading the liner notes and listening to the lyrics. The 4th and final installment will be the first three records with the songs in the proper order and many of the melody songs will have lyrics and vocals and there will be another CD of material that has narrative and glue music so those who are interested can follow the story in a cohesive, accessible linear experience.
Can you tell us how the writing process for these albums has progressed? Have you been writing on your own or has there been a lot of collaboration on the material?
S- I usually don’t collaborate although on “The Story of Light” I really enjoyed working with Aimee Mann on “No ore Amsterdam”.
The writing process is not much different than anything I have done in the past in that I do not setup any parameters on where when or how I will choose inspiration. It can come in any form and I just need to be there to capture it. But having said that, this particular series of records has a theme and in such there are pieces of music that I know would work better for this. Not everything I write would work here.
Have you started writing material for the third chapter of the trilogy and when can fans hope for a release?
S- Yes, there are sketches of songs, some tracks recorded and the story is virtually complete but I’m allowing it to constantly be in flux until it’s captured and put together. I don’t suspect my next few releases will be for the third instalment. I’m going to let it cook for a while.
Your current band has been receiving high praise as musicians in their own right. How did you conduct the audition process for each of these parts and how have you felt the band has aided in your recent live performances?
S- The core band, Phillip Bynoe, Dave Weiner, Jeremy Colson have been with me for over 12 years. The 4th slot varies and is according to what I’m interested in at the time. There was the Breed that had Billy Sheehan and Tony Macalpine which was a fierce band of shredders. Then I had the Sting Theory band with the 2 violins and my last band had an electric harp in it. This tiem I’m going out with a young wiz kid, Michael Arrom on keyboards. He’s 18 years old.
If I audition people I usually give them something to learn. They come in and I see how well they learned it. Then I show them something on the spot and see how well they pick up things by ear. Then I may give them a piece of music to read. But the most important performance aspect of what they do is how they gel in the band, how they can groove and listen to the others and contributing in creating an energy that is vital and sound like music.
But most of all they need to be cool people who are road worthy.
It’s been just over a year since your last visit to Australia. As well as material from the new album, what can Australian fans expect from your upcoming tour?
S-We have a few fun surprises. I like to bring a lot of dimension to the show. There are times where the music can be wild, dense and heavy, or extremely intimate and subtle. We have an acoustic set that is very nice and a very entertaining part of the show where I invite some audience members up on stage to write a song for the band to jam on. This has worked out exceptionally well and some very funny things have happened.
Any last words for fans before we see you soon?
S- Obey your parents and use a condom.