Andrián Pertout speaks with guitar hero Steve Vai from Los Angeles about his latest release ‘The Ultra Zone’, and virtuosic guitar music at the dawn of the new millennium.
Grammy award winning guitarist Steve Vai began tempting fate with the dice throws of rock n’ roll at the age of thirteen, playing with fire under the guidance of axe lord Joe Satriani. He went on to study jazz and classical music at the Berklee College of Music in Boston, Massachusetts, and following his graduation, relocated to Los Angeles in 1979, bringing about his famous stint with the Zappa Band. Opportunity kept knocking on his door, and Steve’s enormous talent went on to be showcased within acts such as Whitesnake, Public Image Limited, Alcatrazz, Alice Cooper, Joe Jackson, Al Di Meola, Gregg Bissonette and David Lee Roth, culminating in a total of sixteen Frank Zappa albums alone! With regards to his work with John Lydon and PIL he recounts, “That was a real great experience for me, because it only took a couple of days, and it was real free ad-libby stuff, but it turned out to sound pretty structured. And he’s just a wild guy, he’s really a bizarre kind of a character. He had this great habit, no matter where he was, he could be in a restaurant, in an elevator, in the street, he would blow snot out of his nose!”
On the other side of the coin, Steve Vai’s solo commitment is marked with his 1984 garage-recording classic Flex-able, introducing a career that now spans a decade and a half, and includes titles Flex-able Leftovers, Passion and Warfare, Sex & Religion, Alien Love Secrets and Fire Garden, as well as his current offering of The Ultra Zone. His virtuosity was duly celebrated in 1994 with a Grammy for ‘Best Rock Instrumental Performance’, not to mention Guitar Player Magazine’s seven-fold acclamation as ‘Best Rock Guitarist’. Steve returns to Australia in 2000 to mesmerize audiences with his guitar wizardry, and will be supported by none other than the reincarnated electric line-up of guitarist Mike Keneally, bassist Philip Bynoe and drummer Mike Mangini.
Last time we spoke was during your ‘Fire Garden World Tour’ of ‘96, where you recounted your brush with death while en-route to Oklahoma City. Has life been fairly calm in comparison since?
SV: ”Well no (chuckles), nothing as eventful as that. Although we do run into some interesting things now and then, but no, it’s not every tour that a bus burns down. And when the bus burned down, the record company thought, ‘Ok, maybe we should service this as a press story,’ and they serviced it to MTV, and MTV said, ‘Well, we’re not gonna mention it or put it on our news.’ And we had films of the bus burning, but they thought that it was a publicity stunt, because the name of my record was ‘Fire Garden’, and so they thought that I burnt my bus down so that I could get my face on MTV. You know, I care so little about that shit, if you really wanna know the truth.”
Your latest album ‘Ultra Zone’ seems to be displaying some pretty extreme guitar wizardry. Have you been practicing?
Tell me about some of the techniques that you incorporate in your playing.
SV: ”I’m at that point in my playing style where I still try to develop interesting and unique things. And it’s not like I’m trying to practice to play faster, or anything like that, but I’m always looking for different phrasing, different ways to express certain things, whether it’s tender emotion or a brutal act of bludgeoning a side walk (chuckles). So it’s one of those things where before I attack a piece of music, I make a conscious effort of where I want the guitar to go. And you know, I just try to take it there.”
Do you usually practice these days, or do you kind of just improvise? What kinds of things do you do?
SV: ”Well, on show days I have a little ritual that I go through that entails a couple of little exercises, just to get my fingers limb warm, and then I play through tapes. I have like vamp tapes of jams and stuff, and I just play to them, because it’s fun, you can go on and on, and on, and it’s a way to really stretch out your imagination. Or I just sit and play the thing. I mean, it’s still one of my greatest joys, to just sit and play the guitar. As a matter of fact, it’s kind of torture, because I’ll sit and start playing, and you know, an hour or two will pass just like that, like nothing. And it’s like you just wanna slow the hands of time down to savour those moments of just sitting and playing, because you don’t get that time all the time. If you’re a music student or something, yeah you might, or if you’re a teenager or just sitting in your room yeah, but when you’re on tour and a working musician, you don’t really get time to practice.”
Let’s recap your complete set-up. What does Steve Vai use on and off stage?
SV: ”My off stage rig and the studio’s is pretty much straight into an amplifier, or maybe three or four separate amplifiers. You know, I’ll combine them with various panning. And the amp that I’m using pretty exclusively right now is the Carvon Legacy, and it’s an amp that I designed with Carvon. It’s a fabulous amp, and it took about a year and a half, just getting together with the right people, and tweaking it until it sounded like what I’ve always wanted. And I’ve never endorsed an amplifier company, because I just never thought that I was playing something that was perfect for me. And finally, we came up with the Lagacy, and I’m just really thrilled about it. So that’s my live rig. And I use some stomp boxes, but I’ve really scaled down. My rack consists of a TC Electronics G-Force and a Roland SDE-3000 delay, that’s it. And then there’s my foot pedals, which are a whammy pedal, a Morley Bad Horsie wah-wah and a Boss DS-1 distortion. And every now and then I come across a funky stomp box that I’ll try for a while. And you know, you think that it’s the most amazing thing in the world for about an hour (chuckles), and then go back to what you used to use. And as far as guitars, I use the same guitar that I’ve always used, it’s an Ibanez JEM. I have seven-strings too but I haven’t been using them very much lately.”
My first impression of title track ‘The Ultra Zone’ is virtuosic guitar music coming of age. How did you achieve this right balance between musicality for art’s sake and bass-and-drum pop grooves?
SV: ”Well, I’m a fan of contemporary music, I like pop rock. You know, elements of it, inspired music is inspired and crap is crap. But I’m very influenced by interesting things, and in this day and age the groove is so important. And there’s so many interesting things being done with grooves, the way they’re being shuffled about, and put through the synthesis of techno, industrial, or R&B, so it’s just natural that elements of that will make their way into my music. I’m not going to sit there and play, ‘Boom, sheh, boom, sheh,’ forever, that stuff just gets boring. So I don’t to put up any limitations, I don’t wanna tell myself, ‘Well, you’re a rock n’ roll guitar player so you’re gonna have to play these kinds of grooves.’ There are a couple of things on the record that could be mistaken for techno, but I’m just a melody freak too, so there’s always melody. You know, ‘The Ultra Sound’ reeks with melody.”
And are you generally conscious of ending up too poppy? Do you try to regulate that to a point?
SV: ”Pop is a very nebulous term, and pop in the sense of being like cornball, candy-type music. If I start to go in that direction I immediately get a feeling in my stomach (chuckles). My ears will shoot that down, and unusually it’s to the detriment of any radio success I may have, but I just can’t help it. I feel like I’ve got a certain talent and I’ve gotta display it a certain way, and I’m very happy with it. I wouldn’t give up my songs for anything, they’re all my children.”
Do you ever get pressured by the record company to go a certain way?
SV: ”No at all. Not me, because they don’t expect Steve Vai to make a pop record. They take my records, and I say, ‘Here’s a great song for radio,’ and they say, ‘Well, no, that’s not a good song for radio.’ And I’ll say, ‘What about this one?’ and they’ll say, ‘No, that’s not good for radio either.’ And I’ll say, ‘Well, then I gotta go back and write a radio song,’ and they’ll say, ‘No you don’t, this record is just great the way it is. You don’t have to have a radio song.’ And you know, I put a record out, and it sells. I don’t sell like a pop artist, but I sell enough. Except in Australia, where the record’s not even released yet.”
I think the import is around…
SV: ”Yeah, I’ve got news for you, they’re not releasing it, you have to get it on import.”
Oh really, that’s a bit funny…
SV: ”Yeah well, it’s the label there. It’s my opinion that they just don’t believe in the music. I try to tell them basically that all they’ve got to do is let people know that it’s out there, because I do have fans that will buy it, and if they know that it’s there, they’re gonna get it.”
So I suppose once it starts selling they will jump in?
SV: ”I have no idea what their intentions are with my music, I can only keep my fingers crossed because I’m at their mercy.”
I must say I did find the record company a bit slack here… I suppose they just want to take the easy way out.
SV: ”I don’t know, because every single other territory in the world is doing fantastic with this record, except for the UK where they have the same kind of attitude. You know, it just takes somebody in the label that believes in you and wants to get it out there and do something. If that person isn’t there, then you know, the word that I heard from my label as far as ‘Flexible Leftovers’ was they were not amused and they didn’t like it, and they didn’t think it was funny.”
What is the origin of the Indian prayer samples utilized in ‘The Blood & Tears’? Were these commissioned especially for the album, or simply taken from a sound library?
SV: ”They were taken from a sound library. There is an extremely rich library of samples that you can choose from in the world, people will go way out of their way to make these unbelievable sample CDs for samplers. You pay a lot of money and you can get them, and they’re all legal. And I take them and I manipulate them, and there are sounds that I just can’t go out and get on my own. You know, I can’t get a piccolo snare from Austria (chuckles), and I can’t get an Indian girl to sing classic Indian style phrases, so I found them on this sample library. And I’m just thrilled to death with it.”
Did you involve anyone in the manipulation of these sounds?
SV: “No, I do all the sample stuff myself. It’s sort of like a jig-saw puzzle, they give you all the pieces, and you have the free will to make it work however you like it in your songs.”
Forgive me for my ignorance, but the record company opted for a cheap alternative and gave me one of those in-house copies of your new album with no liner notes…
SV: ”How unlike them!”
… But if that’s your voice on both ‘Voodoo Acid’ and ‘The Silent Within’ development has certainly taken place in the vocal chords department. Is singing something that’s come about naturally, or did you work hard to achieve these results?
SV: ”Thank you very much. You know, the best thing for me was the fact that my voice was accepted on ‘Fire Garden’, and it gave me the incentive to do more of it, because it gave me confidence. I mean, when that record came out people could have said, ‘Just shut up!’ You know, like, ‘Your voice is just awful,’ because the press doesn’t lie, and especially with me, they’ll go out of their way to be harsher than normal. But the thing is that it came back relatively positive, and it was a real thrill for me, because it told me that I could go on and sing. But you know, I like my voice, I think it’s OK. I wish I could sing like Chris Cornell (chuckles), but that never happens you know. But it’s good enough to where I can get my point across, so I’m very happy that it was receive fairly well. And plus, the more you do it, the better you’ll get, and the last tour really helped me to get it in shape.“
‘Fever Dreams’ is no doubt your handshake with muso territory, while the radio-friendly aspect of ‘I’ll be around’ presents yet another side of your eclectic songwriting. How do you personally see Steve Vai the composer?
SV: ”I fantasize about being a composer. I really do, it’s something I’ve wanted to be since I was very, very young. More so than a guitar player, but when I consider what a real composer is, you know, these past few days I’ve just blasted Stravinsky. I’ve listened to Stravinsky quite a bit, and that guy’s a composer. I am a far cry from a composer in comparison to what a contemporary trained or a classical musician is. I understand composition, I understand orchestration, I do it all the time, but in order for me to claim myself a composer I would have to have some kind of a catalogue that proves that. As far as rock music, let’s say I’m some kind of a contemporary rock composer, because I do mix elements of standard composition with rock instrumentation and stuff. And I love doing that, I enjoy doing that more than anything.”
And have you thought about orchestrating some of your own pieces?
SV: ”Oh absolutely, as a matter of fact, right now I have forty to fifty minutes of orchestrated music of mine from the past, that was performed a few years ago with a seventy piece orchestra, myself, a drummer and a bass player. The project’s called ‘Sound Current’, I orchestrated it, it was conducted by a guy called Joel Thelme, who’s a composer/conductor, and it was performed by the Eastman School of Music in Rochester. And it was a high point in my career really, the experience of playing with an orchestra. It hasn’t come out yet, I’ve got it, but I need to tweak it. I want to tweak the scores more, and make them more interesting before I actually go for that kind of recording. And as you may know, recording orchestras is prohibitively expensive. It’s unbelievable, just having the parts copied cost me about thirty thousand dollars.”
Wow! You’re talking American dollars too…
SV: ”American dollars, yeah. And I’m not talking about what it would cost to record it. If I wanted to use those tapes it would cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.”
And I guess you’ve got other things like royalty payments to the musicians…
SV: ”What you do is you pay them scale. But you’ve got a hundred people in an orchestra getting paid scale, which is like a hundred, a hundred and fifty, two hundred or three hundred dollars every three hours! And you need rehearsal, you need a week of rehearsal at least, and then you need to get them in a studio. A studio like that can cost you up to six or seven thousand a day, so by the time you’re done… And who’s gonna buy it? I would do it for my own amusement. The only reason why I would ever really love to have a hit song and make a lot of money is so that I can do artistic things, like hire orchestras, make really interesting videos, DVDs and stuff. But I’m very happy with where I’m at, it’s just that if those things ever came along, they really open up your ability to expand your creativity. I’m not complaining though, I’m coming to Australia, and I’m playing.”
I will never forget the subsonic chest pounding I received from bassist Philip Bynoe during one of your Australian shows in ’96…
SV: ”(Laughs) You’ll get it again.”
This was serious bass playing! Who is on board on this latest tour?
SV: ”The same band, I just added one person, another guitar player. This young kid, his name is Dave Weiner. And more and more I’m bringing together the elements that I love to see in a concert. I love great musicianship, you get to see that. I love theatre, you get to see a show. Unfortunately I can’t put on the kind of theatrical performance I’d love to, but there’s a theatrical element to what we do. And I’m very intent on having it sound good, we’re all clean musicians, and we do our best to put on the best show that we can. And that’s my favourite thing in the world to do, is stand there and share music with audience, it’s quite liberating.”
What’s happening for Steve Vai in the next millennium?
SV: ”A bunch of different things. Just this past year I launched a record label called ‘Favoured Nations’, and that’s going very well. And basically, the label is geared towards very musician orientated players, and just interesting, unique, creative musicians. And I launched a non-profit organization called ‘Make A Noise Foundation’. We raise funds and instruments to benefit school systems that have dilapidated music programs, and I’m very excited about that. There will be lots of events and fund raisers that we’ll be putting on, and that will be a lot of fun, very interesting. I also have a ten CD box that I’m working on, maybe you’ll see that as an import too someday. But yeah, I’m very fortunate in the sense it’s a small yet loyal audience that likes the kind of thing that I do, and I can go on tour and do this kind of thing. And I don’t mean to be so harsh about the record company…”
I guess it’s just the nature of business…
SV: ”Well, it’s like too conglomerate. Like that, one plus one has to equal two. With Steve Vai it’s more like one plus one is equal to one and a half…”
“The Ultra Zone” out on Sony Music. For further information on Steve Vai take a cyber tour on the Official Steve Vai Web Site.
'Mixdown' Monthly ~ Issue #69, January 1, 2000
BEAT MAGAZINE PTY LTD
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Steve Vai: Fire Garden
Steve Vai: Fire Garden World Tour