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Interview:  STEVE VAI

Rock Stars...

Steve Vai
Photo: www.vai.com

STEVE VAI

A Grammy award winning guitarist with 25 million sales behind him and a CV that includes Frank Zappa, Whitesnake, David Lee Roth, Alcatrazz and G3 Steve Vai is plank spanker extraordinaire.

Now comes his latest 'Where the Wild Things Are' DVD, a piece of work that further broadens the concept as rock music as entertainment. Pete Feenstra investigates.

Thanks for your time Steve, this really is an exceptional DVD in terms of playing and production.

Did you see it yet?

Yes twice over, six hours of my life, fantastic it really is a work of stunning intensity...

Well thanks very much. I tried to create a show that mixed both intense playing with a sense of performance. I wanted to produce something that the audience would be entertained by. And above all it was an opportunity to play some of the songs I really like with this incredible and unique band I had at my disposal.

Steve Vai
Photo: www.vai.com

You often make mention of having the vision of music your head, Do you consider yourself a composer first and guitarist second?

Well I think the term composer is an interesting term that might need further definition but I use that term differently from the say the role of the songwriter. And I guess I'm a bit of everything as I enjoy writing songs that are simple and I enjoy writing rock music that can be both simple and also very complex and intense.

But I also enjoy composing for large ensembles such as an orchestra and symphonies. But overall I'm not sure if I'm one more than the other. It's difficult to say which I enjoy most. Perhaps sitting and composing is my enjoyable thing as its like total freedom and gives opportunity for your imagination to have playtime.

 

"my musicality doesn't really interrupt the spiritual balance it's more a refection of it."


Given the intensity of your music, how do you find equilibrium between your musical virtuosity and the spiritual balance you often talk about?

I see the two as being separate. My musicality is ..well I should say when I talk about my spiritual balance, I'm referring to coming to an understanding.... really about coming to an understanding of the continuing evolution of life and reality, what might be considered a higher power and going within.

I've done a lot of esoteric soul searching and spiritual questing as we all do, you know, whether we know it or not. And we all have to find the path that's right for us. You don't have a choice and you are only going to find the path that is right for us, you know?

So my musicality doesn't really interrupt the spiritual balance it's more a refection of it.

Aside from being a unique guitarist, you are also an innovator, composer, record label boss and band leader and seem in many ways to have trodden the same path as Frank Zappa?

Yeah I guess so in a way. He was an amazing guy who brought out the best in people. And I guess there s a lot of Zappa in me. And of course Frank was both a composer and guitarist, producer and he was this crazy guy with a brilliant imagination and unique way of doing things and he was funny but above all else he was in control of his music.

He composed some incredibly complex music but also came up with some lovely melodies and because he had such a wide expanse of music you just become sucked in by him and I learnt a lot from him.

 

"Really the thing about Frank (Zappa) was that he showed me the way to find the power of artistic freedom. It was like your imagination having Christmas every day."

You are also quoted as saying "I was interested in complex music. And I wanted to control a giant group of people with little black dots". That could easily have been Frank speaking in many respects.

Well Zappa was an inspiration especially a composer and also as a band leader. He was the person who showed me how an idea could be put on a blank sheet of paper and how it could then affect a 100 piece orchestra. Really the thing about Frank was that he showed me the way to find the power of artistic freedom. It was like your imagination having Christmas every day.

So Frank had those two elements of control and artistic input and I learned a lot from that and I guess its bound to come out in the music sometime.

'Do you think on ground breaking songs like the sprechgesang [spoken song] of 'Jazz Discharge Party Hats' and 'The Dangerous Kitchen' that you were actually ahead of your audience?

Thanks for suggesting that. There was a lot of work that went into those two tracks. They really offered an insight into how Frank Zappa used to work and bring out the best in his players.

In fact those two songs are perfect examples of the typical way Frank had of getting the best out of people, or bringing stuff out of you that you didn't know you had

He had his own way of making people in his band play or perform and very often better than you might imagine. I mean the stuff he had us play - it was stuff that was all but impossible and then we had to play in double or triple time - and he did it in a crazy way. In this case it was around a narrative about a guy wearing women's underwear.

In a way Frank's genius was just the crazy way he went about things but got people to play the best they could.

 

The DVD doesn't really show too many different styles as I don't think I have that many styles. Really it's more a showcase of the new ideas that came out as a result of putting a new and unique band together, especially in terms of the different sounds, the different look and even different presentation.


On the 'Where the Wild Things Are' DVD was it your intention to showcase all your styles and reactivate some of your back catalogue.

No in fact it was the opposite. The DVD doesn't really show too many different styles as I don't think I have that many styles. Really it's more a showcase of the new ideas that came out as a result of putting a new and unique band together, especially in terms of the different sounds, the different look and even different presentation. And in this case it was the result of a conscious decision to that incorporate two violin players.

It was all about me being able to express the music that I had in my head. I thought about the sound that the new line-up could potentially generate and I was confident it would work with the two violins, as opposed to say using a bagpipe or an organ. I thought with this line-up I could get close to what my imagination had come up with.

And I have to say I really lucked out with coming across Ann Marie Calhoun, who I 'stole' from Ian Anderson (Jethro Tull) and Alex De Pue who are extraordinary players. Both of them really rose to the occasion.

So they affected the way we reinterpreted songs to a certain degree. But actually I'm more interested in recording some new material with them, but that is proving difficult at present because of everyone's busy schedules.

Was it strange going back to songs like 'Liberty', 'For The Love of God' and 'Answers' as they are now nearly 20 years old?

Not really because some of the songs I consider timeless melodies and because they are presented in different ways they are still valid and certainly not caught up in a particular genre or style.

In fact when I play them I sometimes feel almost as if I wrote them yesterday. But with this line-up there were some particularly great moments for me, like the 'Now We Run' for example which is very complex and I really like the violin and guitar moments on 'All About Eve' and especially the acoustic section of the concert.

Then there's 'Murder' which is also kind of special because of all the special effects and thought that went into it as a performance art piece and then we all really play well on 'For the Love of God'. It was all about seeing what was possible with the new line-up.

'Ooo' reminds me of Zappa again?

Thanks yes, it's a very special song for me, its simple but at the end there's a death defying melody. It was another example of coming up with something different because of the band.

Were you ever influenced by the Mahavishnu Orchestra?

Quite a few people ask me that and while they didn't in fact have a particular influence of me I had all the records at the time and when I was young I loved them and I guess because of the violin work, I carried some of that with me.

The DVD format seems well suited to your concept of music as entertainment. I like the humorous sub titles, the face to camera comments and of course your repartee with drummer Jeremy Colson on 'Beastly Rap'

Well there was a conscious entertainment input and I like to have fun as well as immerse myself in my music. The subtitles were an example of that, the on stage lighting the stage clothes, all of it.

Simply in terms of guitar playing Joe Satriani was your mentor. There's seems to be curious parallel between him. Like you with 'Flexible', he didn't think 'Surfin with the Alien' would sell. Were you (both) surprised the popularity of instrumental music?

It wasn't so much about instrumental music and its accessibility as much as a belief in what we put out. I think we both put out something that we totally believed in and had no expectations.

It wasn't really a question of it being instrumental music, but rather a case of doing something that excites you at the time. So you are committed to it and you do it you without concession and indeed without expectation.

But then I think there's a pattern to all of this. A lot of artists make a great record mostly by doing the thing that is most natural to them with no excuses and it's what excites them musically. Then things might change in your career.

When I did 'Passion and Warfare' I was on a career path I was making million of dollars in a band and I turned away from that I turned it all off.  I knew the whole thing was transitory of course, there was substance there, but it was on a different level to what I was doing before.

Finally I'd like to ask you about your role as a record label boss and the visionary decision to sign the Yardbirds. Was that because of their historic role in rock?

I saw myself in a position of having real opportunity. Of course everyone knows about the Yardbirds history but what I saw and heard on 'Birdland' was a really great record played by a bunch of guys who were really very talented and since I had the chance to put that out I was pleased to do that.

'Where The Wild Things Are' is released on DVD, Blu-ray and CD on October 5.

 


Interview September 2009 Pete Feenstra

DVD review


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