In the mid to late 80s I had entered the bigger scene the day I joined the DLR band. After Edward [Van Halen] had reinvented rock guitar in the 70s and 80s the focus was on virtuoso type guitar playing in a rock context. This concept had been building steadily through the early 70s with players like Hendrix, Page, Brian May, Ritchie Blackmore, etc.
These were the players that compelled me to want to play the instrument as brutally yet as beautifully as I possibly could. By the time I joined with Dave [Roth] my chops were honed and unleashed on the Eat ‘Em and Smile record. Other players were emerging on the scene that were raising the bar on control of the instrument. Randy Rhodes, Neil Schon, Yngwie Malmsteen and Joe Satriani were some of the players who contributed to tasty shred.
As a result the 80′s were a time when you could practice the hell out of your instrument and flail like a madman in a cacophony of, do all you can in these 16 bars, guitar solo drenched pseudo-virtuostic frenzy. It was a time of recognition and before I knew it I was on the cover of every major guitar magazine in the world, sometimes 3 times in a year.
It was a great time for rock stars. The shows were huge with stages of doom where the lighting rig alone took up to 11 semi-tractor trailer trucks to lug around. These days I use one small U-Haul trailer that’s dragged on the back of the bus, can you notice the difference?
There wasn’t a guitar magazine I could pick up that didn’t have something amazing and flattering to say about me. It was almost surreal reading quotes from people like Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page, and Billy Gibbons. I knew in my heart of hearts that it would all pass and that a new trend would eventually emerge; Welcome the Grunge movement.
Volumes could be written about the grim reaper who appeared with his scythe and whacked the hair sprayed heads off of every shred, spandex band from the 80s. It took a lifetime for people like myself, Joe and Yngwie to be able to play the way we do and I suppose a lot of young guitar players just did not want to spend a life time toiling away over a hot guitar to try to outdo the previous guy. The 80s scene was becoming rather insipid anyway. MTV was almost as painful then as it is now. The whole revolution was rather refreshing in an odd way.
As a result of this musical rebellion bands like Pearl Jam and Nirvana were banging out inspired melodies over slamming distorted guitar chords. I thought these bands were brilliant, but like any trend it had it’s pantomiming ne’er-do-wells that tried to copy the genius of others and once again the airwaves were polluted with insipid dreck. Like any trend some of it was inspired and some of it was sheer crap but I give credit to anyone that picks up an instrument and tries to make a go of it.
There was a tremendous whiplash against the virtuoso guitar hero and it felt as though most of it was aimed at me in the press. During the first part of the 90s it was virtually impossible for me to pick up a guitar magazine and not read something terrible written about me. It was rare to read editorials or letter sections where I was not mentioned at least once in an unfavorable way. Most of it was aimed at my style of playing but there was some pretty uncalled for personal shots too. I recall one reviewer saying that my parents should have been sterilized so they could not have had me.
Now, regardless of what artists say when they’re commenting on how much they don’t care what fans or critics say about them or their music, they actually do care. In their hearts, they really do care. None of us like when we are being attacked.
Whenever you create something, be it a painting, a song, a book etc., it’s really a testimony of your soul. Your creation is a naked presentation of your personal character and moral fiber. When that product is then introduced to the world and slandered it’s difficult to not feel as if it’s directed directly to the core of who and what you are as a person. Such is the risks of creating art, be prepared for the highs and lows, and don’t think drugs will make it go away.
I grew some thick skin but I always knew it was inevitable. None of this ever changed my love for the instrument or my desire to play the shit out of it. I always felt that I needed to do my best and the reward is having control over an instrument to the point where you can use it to express yourself limitlessly. To this day when I sit and play I am completely thrilled and fascinated that I can run my fingers effortlessly up and down the neck of that instrument and experience expressional liberation. And no matter what the latest trend or hairdo is, there is nothing that will stop me from doing it because I LIKE IT!
During the 90s there were a lot of young guitar players that were picking up the instrument and being influenced by the Monsters of the 80s. They didn’t know it was “uncool” to be proficient but for the most part they were still uninterested in being virtuosos. They had another agenda and as a result, guitar playing in the 90s and to date is not usually drenched in 32nd notes.
The brand of music that I was hearing in my head and wanted to make real was not necessarily based on guitar shredding. I use my chops as a tool to get my point across when it calls for it. When I sat down to make Passion and Warfare, I didn’t really care if my brand of music would sell or not. It was just what I knew how to do so I did it. It was important to me to continually try to push the boundaries of my abilities. I knew that if I just kept recording and releasing what I thought was quality and somewhat unique music that I could get through the assault. In some ways it seemed to work. There are usually three responses that you can get when my name comes up. The first one is “Never heard of him,” another might be, “Oh that guy, he’s a guitar God genius,” and another is “Who, that guy? Isn’t he that Mongolian string shredder from the hair band 80s? Is he still making records?”
Actually the one that I get the most these days is, “Hey dude, did anyone ever tell you that you look like Tommy Lee.” For which my stock response is, “Yeah, but I have better taste in women and a bigger penis.” Actually, if the latter was true then I might have a real career!
I am an Epic (Sony) recording artist at this time and they are apparently happy to have me because it’s a no brainier. They release my record; they don’t have to spend money on independent radio promotions, videos for MTV, Publicists to get me on the cover of Rolling Stone etc. They put it out there and there is a small (yet loyal) audience (thank you very much) of people that seem to like it. Then the head of A&R at Epic started to run into a lot of new artists that were citing me as an inspiration so I got a call from the big guy (the one who you have to make an appointment to make an appointment to make a phone call to talk to) who thought it may be a good idea to invite some of these artists to play on my next record. You know, like Carlos Santana did.
I’m very apprehensive to do things that I feel are a cheap shot at trying to sell records but the idea of having an opportunity to work with some of my favorite musicians was compelling. We went to work and created a list of artists that would make the history books heavy. It’s almost comical to think that some of these artists would want to contribute to a Steve Vai record so I thought, “Hmm, well, I’m not a pop star and although I would love to sell a lot of records and get my music on the radio it would have to be on my terms and that’s a long shot.” I felt that if I had the opportunity to work with these great artists I would want to give them something that they could be interested in because to me it seemed more interesting than just playing on a song. How about a musical with a story, characters etc.? It starred to come together and the inception of the dream began.
I have many stories I had written through the years and the one I started to formulate as the basis for this record was just one of them. I started to construct the story and pull the music together.
OK, that’s enough writing for today. I’ll try to write more to catch you up on the story and where I am with it at this time. If you’re reading this and you’re interested in it, I can’t tell you how much that means to me. It’s way cool! Stick with it because it gets much better.