Although the word “virtuoso” gets used a bit too generously at times, it truly applies to guitarist Steve Vai. But don’t just take my word for it: he was called the “little Italian virtuoso” by no less an authority than Frank Zappa, who hired the young Steve Vai to transcribe his guitar solos and play in his band.
After his time with Zappa, Vai played with David Lee Roth at the dawn of Roth’s solo career – that’s him doing the talking guitar at the beginning of “Yankee Rose” – and with Whitesnake. He also released various solo albums including 1990’s Passion and Warfare and 2012’s Story of Light, has been a guest artist on recordings by many artists, and has toured with fellow guitar virtuosos Joe Satriani, Yngwie Malmsteen, and others as part of the G3 concert series. You might also remember him as the Devil’s guitarist Jack Butler in the movie Crossroads.
The following interview was for a preview article for Vai’s 10/18/13 concert at the Majestic Ventura Theater. It was done by email, with answers received 10/10/13.
Jeff Moehlis: What can we look forward to at your upcoming show in Ventura?
Steve Vai: When I put a show together I think of some of the things I would like to see and how I would like to feel when I go see a show. People spend their time and money and if they are coming to one of my shows I feel a responsibility to give them the best show we can. I look to present amazing musicianship, musical dynamics that can go from extremely powerful and dense to very refined and intimate.
There is an acoustic set, a spot in the show where I come out with an alien light suit on with lasers shooting out of my fingers while playing a guitar that looks like something an alien dragon threw up. There is a part of the show where I invite a few people up from the audience and we build a song right there on the stage by letting them sing the parts. This is always engaging and fun for the audience and you never know what’s going to happen. I like to create a set list that has a nice balance of new music (usually 7-8 songs from the new record “The Story of Light”), older stuff that has never been performed and some expected favorites.
The band has been playing as a unit for over 13 years and we powerfully resonate together. But mostly I focus on being hyper aware of every note I play. I allow my body and face to move with the emanating sound from my guitar and the band. I’m dwelling in that illusive state of mind of being in the moment and taking in the totality of the entire event and sharing this with the audience. This creates a sort of ethereal bond with them. It also gives me an opportunity to act a little kooky!
All in all, our goal as a band is to put on a show that have people leaving with the sensation of feeling good, uplifted and with the impression that they have experienced something unique that will stick with them for a while. But don’t take my word for it, I’m the artist trying to sell myself! I recommend typing into Google “Steve Vai concert Reviews” and click the Ticketron link for fan reviews.
SV: The Real Illusions project is actually a Quadrilogy and will eventually be in 4 stages. The first installment of songs was “Real Illusions”. The Second is “The Story of Light” and the third will come at some time in the future (perhaps) but is unlikely to be my next project. Eventually my plan is to bring all 3 together at the end, put all the songs in the proper order, add narrative, additional music and vocals (possibly another whole CDs worth) and release as a linear, comprehensive story.
I like to think in long term goals and the “Real illusions” quadrilogy is an opportunity for me to stretch out and evolve a story. I have a complete picture in mind for the entire story including how it will end. Of course, there may be some changes here and there but the overall message and conceptual arcs are in place. I am enjoying the process tremendously.
JM: Could you tell us how a stolen Rolodex led to you working with Frank Zappa?
SV: One day when I was 15 or so I was sitting in my Long Island, New York teenage bedroom practicing my guitar and a friend came in and showed me a Rolodex he had stolen from a high profile studio in New York City. It had phone numbers for all sorts of artists like Joni Mitchel, Mick Jagger, John Lennon, Rod Stewart, etc. It was fascinating but none of the artists were anyone I was interested in calling.
Then he got to the Z’s and had Zappa’s home phone number. I nearly broke a string! I couldn’t believe it was really Frank’s number so I called and his wife Gail answered. I told her I was just a fan and if it wouldn’t be an imposition I would like to talk with Frank. She was very kind and told me that Frank was on tour and I could try calling back in a few months. I didn’t want to impose so I waited 6 months and called back but he was on tour again. This went on every 6 months for about 2 years and then one day while I was at Berklee College of music in Boston I called and Frank picked up the phone.
I was lucky because I caught him in a good mood. I asked if I could send him a transcription I had done of a very dense and complex piece of music he wrote called “The Black Page”, and also a tape of my band and some Edgard Verese scores I had access to from the Boston public library. He agreed and actually gave me his home address.
He liked my tape and wanted to try me out for the band but when I told him I was 18 he said forget it, but hired me to transcribe music. A day after my 20th birthday I moved to Los Angeles and started going up to his studio and recording. Later that year (1980) he was putting together a band and I auditioned for it and got the job.
After getting to know Frank and Gail and seeing how guarded they were with their privacy I was stunned that they made themselves so accessible to me. I couldn’t quite understand it but I’m sure glad it ended up the way it did.
JM: How would you describe the Frank Zappa that you knew?
SV: Independent, confident and totally present in anything he was doing.
SV: I had just released my first solo record “Flex-Able” when Ry Cooder was scoring a film about a young classical guitar player that was in love with the blues and was on a quest to find the last missing song that Robert Johnson recorded. There was one scene in the movie that called for a head cutting guitar duel between this kid and the Devil’s guitar player Jack Butler.
Ry was building the duel scene and was looking for a guitar player so he called Guitar Player magazine and asked them who the new hot shot on the scene was. They played him “The Attitude Song” over the phone, which was a song from “Flex-Able.” He called me and asked if I was interested in working with him on this scene. I agreed and we got together and he gave me a copy of the script. We then built the scene and when the director, Walter Hill, heard what we had done he asked me if I would be interested in playing the part of the Devil’s guitar player, Jack Butler, in the film. At first I was apprehensive because I wasn’t sure if I could act but I gave it a shot and there you have it.
JM: What was the good, the bad, and the ugly about the “hair band” era?
SV: The good was that being a rock star in the 80’s was perhaps the best era for that kind of thing. We got to wear the most outlandish clothes, have a massive stage show with tons of lights and props. We got to run around on the stage like maniacs, we got to throw totally outlandish parties every night, and we played our asses off.
There was no bad or ugly for me.
SV: After all the rock star 80’s stuff I knew I had to start making the music that was floating around in my head. I thought my career was over but I hunkered down and made that record and to my surprise it was very well received. It was a time of total creative freedom for me. Whenever we do something creative it’s like a little snapshot of who we were at that time. Looking back I think it was a very brave and creative record to make but at the time it just seemed to be the most logical and natural thing for me to do.
JM: Not long after that album came out, the musical landscape changed. What did you think of the grunge and alt rock explosion?
SV: Like any new genre I thought that the ones who were at the core of the movement were inspired and I liked what they were doing. It was refreshing and necessary at the time because the rock music of the 80’s was becoming terribly insipid. But like all trends that music eventually became a caricature of itself too.
JM: Of your many guest appearances on recordings over the years, are there any that particularly stand out to you?
JM: Who are your favorite guitarists?
SV: Anyone that plays the instrument sincerely.
JM: I asked you this after the Frank Zappa Symposium in Ojai in 2010: What advice would you give to an aspiring musician? Your reply was: “Same advice Frank Zappa gave me: keep your publishing.” Any other advice that you’d share?
SV: Something else Frank said. “There are only two things to remember. Number one, don’t stop, and number two, keep going.”
JM: Do you want to set the record straight on anything about your career?
SV: The record will always go around and around until you can’t hear what’s on the grooves anymore.
JM: What are your plans, musical or otherwise, for the near future?
JM: Where are you responding from?
SV: I’m on an airplane that is en route from Uppsala Sweden to Reykjavik Iceland, brrrrrrrr.