Steve Vai Interview
Guitar virtuoso Steve Vai has done it all. After starting out playing in Frank Zappa’s band as a teenager in the ‘70s then moving on to join Alcatrazz in the early ‘80s, Vai’s career really took off when he joined David Lee Roth’s Eat 'Em and Smile band in 1985. Between tours, Vai got to play the part of Jack Butler, the devil’s guitar player in the film Crossroads where he actually played both his and Ralph Macchio’s guitar parts.
After two albums and tours with Diamond Dave, Vai decided to join Whitesnake for the Slip of the Tongue album and tour in 1989.
In 1990, Vai released what many people consider his masterpiece, Passion and Warfare.
This year, Vai re-packaged Passion and Warfare for its 25th Anniversary and also included four bonus tracks that were not a part of the original album. The package also includes a new album called Modern Primitive which is a compilation of songs that were either written or recorded between Flex-able (1984) and Passion and Warfare.
Steve Vai is currently touring in support the 25th Anniversary of Passion and Warfare; he will be playing the album from top to bottom along with a few other surprises when he makes a stop at the Hard Rock Rocksino on October 25.
We recently spoke with Vai about his career, his influences, and his upcoming appearance in Cleveland.
Greg Drugan: Hi Steve, it’s a pleasure to speak with you.
Steve Vai: Hey Greg, well thank you.
GD: Congratulations on the 25th Anniversary of Passion and Warfare; it’s hard to believe it’s been out that long! How has it been for you?
SV: It’s been a wonderful ride for me, an amazing journey. From a career standpoint, Passion and Warfare had quite an impact and allowed me to break into a relatively difficult audience to reach. Those that like what I do have stuck (with me) for twenty-five years.
GD: Absolutely! I think that it’s really cool that you included Modern Primitive with the re-packaging of the album, there are some interesting tunes on there. What was the process like going through those old recordings?
SV: When I was 20, I moved to California and I was always fascinated with recording. I was working for Zappa and I was entrenched in his whole musical world and very influenced by it. I was experimenting on how to record and I just recorded tons and tons of stuff. It was stuff that made myself laugh and my friends laugh; never really expecting to release any of it. Then I thought, “Hey, what the heck?” so I released Flex-able. Which was a very quirky kind of a record. Right after that I thought, “Hey, I like making music and releasing it!” So I put a band together with these incredible musicians: Tommy Mars on keyboards and Sue Mathis on vocals and keyboards and Stuart Hamm on bass and Chris Frazier on drums. I started writing a lot of material and actually tracking a lot. That band was called The Classified but then I had an opportunity to join Alcatrazz. While I was with Alcatrazz I got offered a solo record deal from Capitol Records so I kinda put all of that Classified stuff on the shelf and started working on solo stuff that became Passion and Warfare. But that material from The Classified was always in the back of my mind because I thought there was a lot of liberation in it. The interesting thing is that I think it’s kind of the missing link between Flex-able and Passion and Warfare, which are very different records.
So with the 25th anniversary coming up, I thought it was a great opportunity to finish that material from that period and release it as a disc within the Passion and Warfare package. It turned out great! I had no idea that my fans would be that attracted to it.
GD: Do you have any other material lying around that might be released at a later date?
SV: I have so much material that I’ve recorded through the years that if there is any interest in anything that I’ve done after I’m dead, there will probably be people unearthing stuff forever!
GD: Great! Speaking of the 25th anniversary, many people believe that “For the Love of God” is your masterpiece. Do you have a particular favorite song that you’ve written either for a solo record or one of the bands that you’ve been in?
SV: Well it changes. What I try to achieve is a particular feeling of hitting the mark in the way I can in any song that I do. When you go to create something, there is a feeling you can have when you’re doing it that says “Oh yeah, this is kinda cool, there is something here.” So that’s what I look for when I write or record a song. There’s a lot of songs that have that feeling and I enjoy playing. I’m appreciative for “For the Love of God” and there are a ton of tracks that resonate with me more than others.
GD: Let’s look back on your career; you mentioned Frank Zappa, what were some of your best memories from playing and working with him?
SV: Just the feeling I would get being in his presence. He was a remarkable person. He was always funny and entertaining. He was always spot on and always creative. When he was creating, he was excited, and that excitement and enthusiasm would draw you in. It was a very uplifting atmosphere because there was comedy in his music and satire. When he was creating, he was like a teenager because he would be laughing and arranging things. So those were the things I enjoyed the most. Just being apart of it and a part of his atmosphere because it was so much fun.
GD: So you left Frank and joined Alcatrazz, then you went on to join David Lee Roth’s band in 1985, are you still in contact with any of those guys?
SV: Occasionally I’ll talk with those guys in Alcatrazz but much more often with the guys from Dave’s band, Billy (Sheehan) and Gregg (Bissonette). We get together at least once a year. We talk to each other, email, I see Billy pretty often.
GD: Earlier this year there was almost a reunion of David Lee Roth’s Eat 'Em and Smile band. I know the fire marshal shut you guys down that night, but is that something that might happen in the future?
SV: You never know! It’s an idea that we all kicked around and were positive about it. But the challenge is getting everyone’s schedule together. Everybody has other commitments. But I would love to do it if the opportunity came up.
GD: What was it like touring in the ‘80s with Dave and Whitesnake with the big stage productions? It doesn’t seem like we have those big rock shows very much anymore.
SV: It was great to be able to do it back then and you’re right, it is relatively rare these days. The whole rock star thing is a little played down now, but it sure was fun! To me the environment you find yourself in, you adapt. So I was catapulted into it. Going from Zappa to Alcatrazz then as soon as I was with Dave, it was a whole different environment. I was like “What’s going on?” My focus was to write the best songs I can and play the heck out of the guitar and get on stage and tear it up. That’s always been my M.O. The moving parts of that were wild. Being in arenas every night, parties and the press. The whole outside world just changed. It was phenomenal! I adapted and kept moving forward. Then the Whitesnake thing came along and I adapted because it was a little different with different personalities. When I look back on it, I can’t believe it all happened! How fortunate I was and how much fun I had and how cool it was to be able to have done that. I was the perfect age, at the perfect time, playing chops with the perfect people in front of perfect audiences. It was a miracle really.
GD: Right! Just thinking of the other guys you’ve played with: Excellent musicians like drummers Tommy Aldridge and Gregg Bissonette as well as Billy Sheehan and Rudy Sarzo on bass.
SV: They are incredible musicians and really fun people to tour with!
GD: Is there a particular concert that you have played that stands out to you and, if so, what were the circumstances?
SV: Well a lot of them blur. But when you are in different stages or formats or festivals there is one that stands out. There are tons of shows that have had bizarre, funny things happen but there is one show I played on the Fire Garden tour when I was in Barcelona. The show sold out rather quickly so they added a second show on the same night so I had two shows in one night. One thing you find out when you are a traveling musician, you try to put on the show no matter how you are feeling and sometimes that’s the hardest thing. You could have the flu, colds, broken wrists, whatever...and I’ve had it all. This particular evening I was very sick.I had a really bad flu or temperature and I was a little delirious and I had two shows. The first show was difficult because I really didn’t have any sleep. I didn’t know how I was going to get through the second show. Something miraculous happened. I felt as though I divorced myself from any thoughts that were in my head. I just went out there in this stream of performing and it was like everything was surreal and magical. Everything was exactly as I wanted it and the music flowed out of me beautifully. I felt as if I was a foot off the ground the whole night. It was the highlight of my entire career.
GD: And sometimes you never know. If you are feeling bad, you can go out and have one of the best shows ever, you just have to go out there and do it.
SV: You never know! The strength just arrived and it was just sheer surrender. That’s what I did, I surrendered. I’m not gonna even try to think that I have an idea. You just go to autopilot and that’s a beautiful place to be.
GD: As a youngster you took guitar lessons from Joe Satriani and years later you joined him on many G3 tours. Do you think playing or jamming with other guitarists is the best way to improve your own style and skill?
SV: That’s according to your attitude about it. It’s vital If you have a good attitude. If you are looking to the other as a person that you’re competing against or trying to steal something from or you don’t want something stolen from you, or you need to be better than in the face of the public, then you are going to have a really rough time. You won’t have an exceptional experience. The thing you will get out of it is suffering.
If you go into with a sense of sharing and opening your ears and listening carefully to what they are doing. If you are in the moment kind of collaborative, co-creative way and you are seeing them do things that are beyond your scope and you use it as an inspiration, then it is a really great experience. All of the G3 tours have been great. Once I got a better understanding of this, it got a whole lot better for me.
GD: Who do you think has had the most impact on modern guitarists and who has influenced you the most?
SV: Well, I was a teenager in the ‘70s so I was really into the progressive rock stuff. Jimmy Page probably had the biggest impact in the beginning. Brian May, Ritchie Blackmore, Jimi Hendrix. There are so many great contributors to electric rock guitar. If you ask for stand-outs, and of course this is just my opinion which doesn’t mean anything. There are two players that come to mind that completely reshaped the landscape in the most powerful ways, one was Jimi Hendrix and the other is Edward Van Halen. Of course there are so many more, but from my perspective when Edward came along he was a total game changer on the instrument. He created an orchestra on six-strings on just one track. His songs were accessible, there’s something in his midst that we respond to because there’s a comfort there and there’s a ferocity. With Hendrix he was just like a model that appeared and reshaped the landscape and Edward did the same thing.
When I go to listen to guitar players, I listen to Allan Holdsworth or many other players. I know all the songs that Hendrix and Van Halen wrote and played and I love them. They were vital to my evolution. Those were the two guys that had the biggest hand in it all.
GD: Very good, I would agree with you 100%. So you are out supporting the 25th Anniversary of Passion and Warfare and you are playing it from start to finish, have you ever played an entire album live before?
SV: No! And it was a terrifying idea at first. (laughs) A lot of technology and a really good band, and many hours of sitting and practicing. It’s really great and I enjoy doing it. It’s the whole record from start to finish, paying great respect to the arrangements but we also have some surprises. We have a lot of screens and a lot of guest artists that appear on the screen that I play with.
GD: Great! Now are you playing any tracks from Modern Primitive as well?
SV: You know, thank you for asking! I haven’t had a chance to work them in and I may when we get out there (to Cleveland). Preparing a song for this show is different than any of the others because we have videos for every song. That requires a click track and a lot of the songs require a backing track because there are so many noises and intricacies that a four-piece band can’t cover. I haven’t quite crossed that bridge yet, but I’m working on it.
GD: Well maybe you could sneak one or two in when you get to Cleveland, that would be great!
SV: Do you have any preference of songs?
GD: I really kinda like “Bop!” the first track on the album, it’s very unique.
SV: Ok. If I could play that, I would be as good as some people think I am! (laughs)
GD: Well, I think you are as good as anyone thinks you are! Steve, thank you so much for your time. The fans in Cleveland love you and I think they will be in for a great experience when you come to town.
SV: Well, thanks! I really love coming there and I really appreciate the support.