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The Art of the Impossible: An interview with Steve Vai

Oct 22, 2012 at 12:42 PM | Featured Artists | By Stephen Humphries
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On a Friday night in downtown Los Angeles, Steve Vai begins his show with a dramatic musical overture. He emerges from billowing dry ice wearing a long coat, pointy toe boots, and a cowboy hat—appropriate attire for the world’s most formidable guitarslinger—and shoots from the hip with rapid-fire notes from his seven-string.

Anyone fancy a duel?

There aren’t too many guitarists who can go toe-to-toe with Vai when it comes to dexterous technique. The prodigy, who studied guitar under Joe Satriani as a teen, was just 18 when he impressed Frank Zappa with his ability to transcribe Zappa’s music. Not long after, Vai dropped out of Berklee College of Music in Boston to heed Zappa’s call to play “impossible guitar parts” and “stunt guitar” on albums such as Ship Arriving Too Late to Save a Drowning Witch (1982)and The Man from Utopia (1983).

The young New Yorker relocated to California (though he retains his East Coast accent to this day) and, following a short stint in the metal outfit Alcatrazz, he recorded his debut album, Flex-Able, in a shed in his back garden (which gives whole new meaning to the term “woodshedding”). Flex-Able (1984) was an album of Zappa-influenced avant-garde fusion that featured almost as much xylophone, vibraphone, and keyboards as it did lead guitar. Yet guitar-centric tracks such as “The Attitude Song” demonstrated that the young Italian possessed chops that might make even Eddie Van Halen sweat.

It’s little surprise then, that Vai joined David Lee Roth’s solo band. The singer’s debut album, Eat ’Em and Smile (1986), turned out to be a tipping point for Vai, introducing him to a wider audience. The guitarist wowed listeners right from the off: Lead single “Yankee Rose” started with Vai’s guitar mimicking a human voice! Even more impressive were the guitarist’s memorable solos during “Ladies Night in Buffalo” and “Big Trouble.” The beautifully articulated solos boasted smooth legato technique, strutting swagger, and sweet melodiousness. Those qualities were combined to staggering effect on Vai’s 1990 masterpiece Passion and Warfare, as well as Fire Garden (1996), The Ultra Zone (1999), and Real Illusions: Reflections (2005).

The guitarist learned a thing or two about showmanship during his two album stint with Roth and, later, Whitesnake. In 2012, Vai’s stagecraft remains captivating. His show not only features more costume changes than a Britney Spears concert, but also musical sparring with electric harpist Deborah Henson-Conant and an amusing comedy routine with drummer and ventriloquist Jeremy Colson. At one point, Vai dons a ridiculously entertaining cyborg costume to play a guitar that looks like it’s from the 23rd century.

But it’s not all just shtick.

The handsome guitarist, whose lean face has more chiseled angles than the Chrysler Building, has a command of the stage that is mesmerizing to behold. During “Racing the World” and “Velorum” —high-velocity instrumentals in which Vai’s guitar glides in and out of a slipstream forged by Colson’s drums and Dave Weiner’s rhythm guitar—the guitarist performs an elegant dance to untangle a green guitar lead that has tendriled itself around his legs. During his first remarks to the audience, Vai looks down at his floral pants and declares, “When I wear these trousers, I feel like Prince!” He briefly imitates one of His Purple Majesty’s foot shimmies and jokes, “If I could dance like that, I’d have a real career.”

Vai’s career isn’t too shabby. Over the coming year, his world tour will take him to just about every continent on Earth except Antarctica. Friday night’s show in Los Angeles is the 49th installment of a North American tour—his first solo outing in five years—to promote The Story of Light, a new concept album that forms the second installment of his Real Illusions trilogy. The new album is well represented in the setlist. Vibrant ballad “The Moon and I” shows off Vai’s fine voice. “Weeping China Doll” arcs with dramatic sweep. “Gravity Storm” is as heavy and turbulent as its title implies. Beverly McClellan, a finalist on The Voice, gets up on stage to reprise her guest vocal on “John the Revelator,” a bombastic mix of pseudo gospel and metallic blues that even Muse might consider over the top.

In concert, as on record, Vai’s hands appear to have the speed of Usain Bolt and the endurance of a Kenyan marathoner. His fingers perform seemingly impossible feats on his Ibanez, unearthing musical patterns and tones that test the boundaries of the instrument. Vai is a magician performing real illusions before one’s eyes.

But to reduce Vai’s compositions to mere fancy fingerwork would be to miss the point of his artistry. To truly understand where he’s coming from as a musician, one has to delve into his metaphysical worldview. Like Reflections, the first part of the Real Illusions trilogy, The Story of Light is a musical representation of Vai’s spiritual quest. Indeed, the guitarist’s interest in divine questions has informed his work ever since Passion and Warfare, which was dedicated to “The Big Guy” and included Vai’s emotional guitar instrumental “For the Love of God.” The Story of Light includes a narrative in the sleeve notes that elucidates the themes that inspired each composition. Just as Vai is interested in writing about the spiritual underpinnings in the material world, he is also keen to break down musical limitations—to reveal the infinite in the finite, as it were.

Indeed, Vai believes that everyone has a divinely inspired creative impulse. At one point during his concert, he invites a pair of red-head girls from the audience, neither of which is a musician, on to the stage to create a song on the spot. He asks one of the girls to imagine a drum beat, so she taps one out on her hand. The girls then vocalize a bass line, a harp part, and, finally, a lead guitar part. Vai quickly comes up with an arrangement for the component pieces of the extemporaneous composition, a funky workout with plenty of guitar shred. (No word on whether the two red-heads received royalties!)

Rock Square recently talked to Vai by phone about how his metaphysical outlook informs his creativity, how his guitar playing has evolved and why Tom Waits is such an inspiration.

How’s the tour going so far?

I realized that this is what I do best. Young guitar players are interested in what this guitarist is doing—older fans are bringing their kids now, and they are telling their friends who have never heard me. The thing that is so interesting and exciting is that the reviews are so stellar.

Can you briefly describe the story of the Real Illusions trilogy and the underlying message of the fable?

It’s the story about a guy who goes through harrowing experiences and ends up doing something that throws him into a deep, deep depression and is overcome with guilt. It’s not an uncommon state of mind. But he goes mad and so we see the story unfold through his eyes. It takes place in a town. Everybody in the town, as does almost everyone on the planet, has an interesting life story. In this town, these life stories start to come to fruition and you start to see the connection they have with each other and the extraordinary things that go on in their lives. There’s drama, there’s comedy, but there’s this very metaphysical esoteric edge to it, too.

They all eventually end up in this place where there’s this looking pond. When they look in the pond, they see their reflection but, the more they look into this reflecting pond, the more they start to see their identity. If you look in the mirror long enough, you start to see your own identity. It’s written on your face. What they realize is their identity is created by their own mind, which is based upon past experiences.

As they go through life, there’s things that happen to them that cause certain mind patterns—thought patterns—and these create our identity. In reality, when they keep looking at their actions and how that caused them to think particular ways about themselves and the world and how their actions have affected the people they live with.

But then they keep looking and they realize they created their identity and it’s all an illusion based on thought patterns. The deeper they look into the pond—deeper, deeper, deeper—it gets very metaphysical. They start to see how these thought patterns have been firmly planted through lifetimes. Eventually, they come to the point when they realize that, underneath the mind noise and all the thought patterns, there’s this very quiet stillness that is the core of reality and permeates all things. As a matter of fact, they come to the realization that all things are an expression of this one thing.

In the sleeve notes to “The Story of Light,” the first track of your new album, you describe God as pure love, divine light. Can you talk about how your spirituality has influenced your creativity over the years and how it inspired The Story of Light?

I don’t really like to use the “God” word because it’s shrouded in ideology and history and miserable shit sometimes, you know, and beautiful stuff, you know. It’s a very personal kind of a connection. Whenever we go into the creative element—we all do it—we usually gravitate, like a magnet, to the thing that’s most interesting to us. That’s why so much art and music and architecture and any action we do is based on love. Everybody wants to be loved. They want to feel like they are loving somebody or something. The myriad of songs and art are written around it. There’s lust and there’s anger and there’s politics—some people are very passionate about politics—and it’s all legitimate.

I’m one of those guys that has always wanted to understand the core of our nature. So that’s been my study my whole life, even more than music. I think about that more than music. It’s led me on various searches and the study of this, that, and the other thing and whenever you go through life, you see things that make sense to you, or you hear things that make sense and then you adapt them as part of a belief system. You start to cultivate a belief system based on various things. They may not be the same thing as others. And then what happens is that belief system becomes your truth and then that becomes your reality. As a result, everybody’s right, you know?

When I go into my creative element, I go toward those esoteric things. But then, on the other hand, my brain has all this intense academic musical information and it mixes it all together and that’s how I get things like The Story of Light.

In the past, you’ve admitted that you’ve never been much of a blues guy and yet here you are covering Blind Willie Johnson’s “John the Revelator,” albeit in a style that is hardly traditional blues. What inspired that choice of cover version?

Well, when I say I’m not much of a blues guy, it’s part defense mechanism and part rebellion. As a guitarist, you’ve got to understand that you are constantly being criticized or critiqued. The world sees artists in little boxes. Some of those boxes are labeled jazz, classical, rock, blues, etcetera. So, in order to fit into the little blues box, you have to play or sound a particular way. I’ve been completely rebellious my whole life, unconsciously, to any of these boxes. It’s not that I don’t enjoy that music and it’s not that I don’t appreciate innovators in those fields, it’s just that I’ve never felt comfortable miming or pantomiming or copying or trying to sound like any of those various players because, a) I can’t, b) I choose not to and, c) I don’t have the interest to.

I’m saying, as far as the world views what a blues player should be, I don’t fit in the box. But I love deep blues. I listen to Blind Willie Johnson. I have every one of his recordings. I have a very rich catalog of before-the-blues type of players, because there were these beautiful seeds of music, you know, that were planted back then and was at the core of a movement. What happens is that these illustrious innovators create something that’s very natural and interesting to them, and then other people are inspired by it and then they pantomime it or copy it. There’s nothing wrong with that. But it lacks a particular authenticity that I really desire when I listen to music.

So I’ll go to Blind Lemon Jefferson and Willie Johnson, and I don’t even necessarily know if that’s the blues, it’s almost like before the blues. But it’s very authentic and I was very moved by it. When I heard it, I heard it through my processing, which is all these heavy guitars and gospel-esque vocals. So when I built “John the Revelator” and “Book of the Seven Seals,” I was really just marching to the beat of my playground and imagination. I wasn’t looking for blues integrity. I have zero interest in that shit.

You not only got Aimee Mann to sing on “No More Amsterdam,” but also write the lyrics. Did you write side by side, or did you give her the music and ask her to write a lyric?

I knew Aimee from college. We went to school together and we lived in the same apartment building, just a few doors away from each other. My girlfriend at the time was Aimee’s best friend. My girlfriend at the time [Pia] is now my wife. So, through the years, we’ve always had Aimee’s music in the house. When I wrote the track, I wanted it to fit in the story in a particular way and I needed a female singer to sing with me. I really hit a brick wall, for some reason, when it came to writing the lyrics. Pia said, “Why don’t you call Aimee?”

At first you think, “Oh my gosh, Steve Vai and Aimee Mann, how is that ever going to work?” But the track was a very sweet kind of track, so I sent it to her. She really liked it, so she came over. We discussed it and I said, “Just go with it.” I gave her the outline of the story and she wrote all the lyrics. She accepted the invitation to sing on it with me. It was one of my favorite collaborations I’ve ever done.

You’re a massive fan of Tom Waits and a friend of his. Have you ever thought about inviting him to guest on an album?

I revere Tom so much, he’s my favorite artist. There’s something so beautifully authentic about him. I did ask him one time, but the stars didn’t align. But I’m very, very apprehensive about that kind of thing because he’s Tom Waits. He’s very discerning.

“Creamsicle Sunset” has a Hawaiian feel to it—what was the inspiration for that one and how did you replicate the slack-key guitar sound?

Do you know what a creamsicle is? It’s an East Coast ice-cream that has orange sherbet and cream. I loved it as a kid. Whenever I have a creamsicle, it’s like I’m back to being a kid again. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen a sunset in Hawaii but, to me, they’re different from any other place in the world. The sky just has these beautiful orange, cream [colors] with a deep, rich blue background. I think it’s because of the Pacific.

I was thinking of the flavor of a creamsicle and how it would relate to a sunset in Hawaii. How would that sunset taste? It would probably taste like a creamsicle. I thought, what would it sound like? I’m not a slack key player or anything like that but, in my own way, I kind of amalgamated all of these things together. For me, if you’re sitting on a beach on Hawaii and watching the sunset and eating a creamsicle, you may experience some kind of bliss!

You released a compilation album of ballads, The Seventh Son, which collected the seventh tracks on past albums. What is the significance of the number seven—and the seventh track—on your previous albums and the seventh track on this album, the celtic ballad "Mullach A'tSi"?

Well, in the early days of metaphysical meandering, I came across all sorts of interesting things like numerology and astrology. I discovered quickly that all that stuff resonates at a pretty low level of where I want to go. To me, it’s a deterrent. Numbers mean nothing to me, they really don’t. But the seventh position on a record always felt extremely comfortable to me for that particular type of song. If you are into numerology, the number seven has quite a mystique to it. But you know, I get questions all the time, “Are you into this? Are you a member of the illuminati or the Free Masons?” No, I don’t do any of that stuff.

You’ve been playing and composing for many decades now—how do you keep the inspiration fresh and find new ways of approaching the guitar?

I just realized that music and the guitar as a tool is an infinite expression and you can never cap it out. So, as a result, I am never at a loss for an interesting idea. I know that, if you have the right attitude and the right perspective, you’ll come up with a very exciting idea. And that holds true for anybody.

On “The Story of Light” you really challenged yourself to avoid familiar patterns and phrases. How did you construct that one?

The same kind of approach. I set up certain parameters for myself, particularly, a) what are you going to do that you’ve never done before? And, b) maybe you’ve never heard before?

When I was recording “The Story of Light,” I worked on every little phrase—one at a time. I needed to feel like I was doing something different than what I was doing before. I knew I was capable of it. That’s the ticket. You have to know that you’re capable of it, and everybody is, but if you let the mind noise get in the way, you’re never going to discover those things. So, then, whenever something comes up, it’s like Christmas. I get very excited about it. After you record it and string it all together, you have a piece of music that’s unique for you. And then you learn it and it totally expands your musical vocabulary.

I imagine that when you played with Frank Zappa, you probably learnt a lot about approaching music in a leftfield, unconventional way. What did you learn from Frank?

Well, Frank was the most extraordinary guy I ever met. More than anything, he was very independent. He was independent in the way that he thought, he was independent in the way that he did his business, he was independent in the way that he approached music notation and technology. He really dug deep into things. He did what he wanted to. He’d get excited about an idea and make it real. What I got most from Frank was his independence.

If you can imagine, I started working with him when I was 18 years old. Think of your consciousness when you’re 18. I started touring with him when I was 20. I toured three years and I worked for him probably five or six years all in all. When I went into the world as a young, independent artist, I just thought, “Well, this is how you do it. Don’t let anybody take advantage of you. To the best of your ability, you’re fair with everybody. And you do things that are exciting to you, regardless of what pop culture or the little boxes say on them.”

Frank roped in a lot of great guitarists, including yourself, Adrian Belew, Warren Cuccurullo, Mike Keneally to play technically demanding parts. Do you think Frank Zappa underrated his own guitar playing?

I don’t think I could say he ever underrated his guitar playing. I think he enjoyed playing and he could get pretty indulgent at times. Some solos were nine minutes long each night. I think he saw playing the guitar as instant improvised composition.

As far as “underrated.” I don’t think anybody is unrated. I think everybody ends up where their energies project them.

Do you have to practice more now just to keep up your flexibility and muscles than when you were younger?

I had a lot more time to practice when I was younger. To keep up intense chops, you gotta stick on it. But your muscle memory is much better than it used to be. So I don’t need to practice as much to get back to where I was. But my interest has changed and my desire to evolve in various areas of the guitar change and it requires a different approach. I don’t sit and do scales and exercises all day anymore. My picking technique has really taken a hit because I’ve just grown to dislike the sound of fast picking. It just sounds mechanical to me, up and down a scale. I’ve done it, I’ve been there, I’ve done enough of it. So I decided to evolve in a different direction and that was more in phrasing. If you listen to the new record and the past record, songs like "Mullach A'tSi" and “The Story of Light” and “Creamsicle Sunset” —there’s more phrasing in one of those songs than on a whole record on one of my past records. And then you decide to evolve in a different direction and that’s one of the things that keeps it fresh.

Who are some of the guitarists out there that you admire?

Well, there’s always favorites that I brought with me from when I was a teenager. I was a teenager in the ’70s and Jimmy Page was my big inspiration. Guys like him and Beck and Hendrix and Brian May and Richie Blackmore. They’re still great. To me, they’re still the best. And Satriani, because I learned from him when I was still a kid. I’ve seen how the guitar has evolved and, whether it’s at the forefront of pop music, there’s always a sub-culture of people trying to achieve amazing things on the instrument. They push the boundaries and they usually kick off from where their inspirations start. So there are guys who have cut their teeth on guys like me, and they think, “Ok, this is what guys like this are doing. This is where I’ve got to start.” It’s pretty amazing to see what some of these guys are accomplishing.

But when I listen to music, I listen through various kinds of ears. Part of me is very critical. I listen through the same ears I listened to Page and Beck and Danny Gatton and Santana and all that stuff and I listen for technique and I listen for emotional investment. But that’s the smaller part of my listening pleasure. The bigger part, the largest kind of consciousness, is when I am experiencing anybody playing any kind of musical instrument—and this may sound kind of esoteric—I see that everything that everybody does creatively, which is virtually anything they do, is really a reflection of that thing I was telling you about in the beginning that underlies everything we do. It’s just like the universe expanding itself. It’s the infinite expressing itself in the finite. As that, is beautiful to me. So I can see someone sitting with an instrument and just struggling and I can find just as much enjoyment in that as watching an elite, worldclass virtuoso.

In music, there’s only so many notes and yet there are infinite variations of music.

Yeah, because the thing that shapes the note is the intention behind it.

“Weeping China Doll” was inspired by the Weeping China Doll roses in your garden. I’ve noticed that you’ve often included flowers and floral designs in your album artwork and you have songs such as “Fire Garden Suite” and “Melissa’s Garden.” So, we already know that you have guitar fingers, but do you also have a green thumb?

I don’t have a green thumb, oddly enough. I wish I did. My wife has a green thumb. We have this wonderful gardener who works for us and everything she touches just blossoms. I’m learning how to have a green thumb. I think it’s more a psychic connection you have with plants and I haven’t paid as much attention to that as I should.

But you’re a bee keeper….

I am a bee keeper and I think that’s really helped me get close to nature. Because when you’re working with the little guys, they’re fascinating creatures and they really are one with nature. When you focus on it, you tend to get absorbed by it and that’s a beautiful thing.

The fact that there’s floral designs on my work, I’m not like a skull and crossbones kind of guy, and I’m not into psychedelic. I found an artist, when I started working on Real Illusions named Andrea Cobb and her work is so beautiful and deep. She does a lot of floral stuff. I think if there was something that popped into the physical world from the heavens and the abyss, it would be flowers. They’re so beautiful.

The Weeping China Doll is a particular kind of rose and the “Weeping China Doll” song wasn’t based upon them, per se. We had a fence that we put outside the studio and my wife put these Weeping China Dolls on it and it looked to me, when they were draping over the fence, like musical notes on manuscripts. So I took photos and I transcribed it and parts of “Weeping China Doll” —not the main melody—but some of the more crazy sounding stuff is the Weeping China Doll draped across the fence.

I’m not a guitar player, so I’m curious as to which guitar parts from your back catalog or even Zappa’s are the most challenging to play.

Things are challenging for different reasons. For pure “impossible to execute”—because it doesn’t belong on a guitar—kind of stuff, that’s Zappa. Because Frank would write things as a composer and just give them to me and say, “Here, play this on the guitar.” The guitar is a weird instrument. Every instrument has its limitations and you need to know how to compose for it. Frank gave me stuff that was performable but wasn’t natural. So, when you listen to pieces like “Moggio” or “The Jazz Discharge Party Hats” or “Sinister Footwear,” they just don’t belong on the guitar. So it took a lot of work. But my perspective was always, “Well, if I can do it really slow and perfect, then all I need to do is get my speed up. You can do anything.” That’s the perspective I needed to survive Frank’s band.

As far as other pieces of music in my catalog that are very challenging and not because they are hard to execute, but, in order to make them speak in a particular way, you have to be in a particular frame of mind. It’s not just about fingering, you know? Having an emotional investment at command, is quite the tall order.

Rock Square has a large readership of music collectors: Do you collect any music memorabilia, albums, or guitars?

I’m not a guitar collector. I only use guitars that resonate with me. Although there’s an attraction to old guitars, I’m not romantic about them. I really like guitars that have a use for me and sound a particular way. If I come across an old guitar that has that, I’m all about it but not for the romance of it.

As far as collecting memorabilia: The only two things that I collect are hot sauce—I don’t know why; I really like the labels. They’re pretty wild and they’re something you can pick up from all over the world. I have a huge hot sauce collection. And, as far as artists go, the only one I collect is Tom Waits’ stuff. I have all of his vinyl, any bootlegs I can find. I don’t think it’s because I’m a fanatic. It’s just something fun to do. It’s not like, “If I don’t have this, I don’t feel complete.” I don’t base my identity on collecting. It’s just one of those fun little things. And he’s a worthy subject.

Have you ever tried Billy Gibbons’ hot sauce?

Oh, yeah, he sent me some. Really cool stuff. Or really hot stuff!

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