Legendary guitarist Steve Vai will perform at Backstage Live on Wednesday, November 20. He spoke with the Current on the phone from his home in Los Angeles.
First of all, thanks for stopping by instead of ignoring us, like most do, in favor of Austin or Houston.
It’s been a long time since I’ve played there and I can’t figure out why, ’cause I have a great audience there. I’m really looking forward to go back.
You couldn’t just make a simple album, could you? You had to start a trilogy and make us wait years for each chapter to come out… Tell me about The Story of Light.
Yes, I’m always looking for less conventional stories and I’m always challenging myself to do something that’s different. The way I laid it out was… different. I didn’t want it to be so obvious, like a conventional concept record, so I thought of doing the music in three installments. The first was [Real Illusions: Reflection, 2005], the second The Story of Light , and the third will come out sometime in the future, and at one point I’d like to get all the songs and put them in the right order and add a fourth record with new narratives, and change the melodies and the vocals. In the meantime, it’s just music that can be enjoyed by those who like that kind of stuff.
So we will we have to wait several years before chapter 3?
One thing is to be able to transcribe music, but quite another to be able to transcribe music for Frank Zappa at age 18. What was that like and why can’t some people “get” Zappa?
Frank’s music was more challenging than anybody else’s. I could’ve tried to do atonal music, which I did, but I liked Frank’s music for the same reasons you like it. It just resonates with you. Some people like blue and some people like red. I don’t care to really understand why some people like certain things and some don’t. In the future people will discover Frank’s music and it will change the quality of their whole life. Frank’s music changed a lot of people’s lives. I’ve always been close to his music and that’s why I chose to transcribe it. I was one of those fortunate people that kind of followed the thread all the way to L.A., and Frank found something in me that was valuable.
When I listen to The Story of Light, at times I feel I hear Zappa, and then I think: “Who influenced who?” Do you feel you influenced him in any way?
You’d have to ask him that… [Zappa died in 1993] (laughs) Every time you work with somebody you find things that inspire you, but I can’t say I influenced Frank at all. Maybe there were some things going on at the time in the way of guitar technology that I introduced him to that I don’t think he knew well, but it was just stupid little things like that, you know…
What’s your favorite moment from, say, You Are What You Is (1981, an album in which Vai is credited as “Strat Abuse”)?
There’s a piece called “Persona Non Grata” that turned into the “Theme from the 3rd Movement of Sinister Footwear,” and there’s a guitar solo that Frank did and I transcribed and doubled, so when you listen to the song, you hear me on one side and Frank on the other. It’s pretty extraordinary how closely I doubled his performance. That was quite a feat.
Punk started as a direct response to flashy, technical guitarists like you. What’s your take on DIY music? How do you view technically limited musicians who are trying to do their thing?
I have two way of looking at other people’s playing. One is a very critical view, which listens with the same ears that listen to Jeff Beck, Jimi Hendrix… I look at any guitar player and there’s a particular way that I might criticize them in my mind, like, ‘Well, the intonation is not very good, the vibrato is nice, they don’t really play fast…” That’s just one way of kind of sizing them up. But it’s a very small part of what I do when I’m watching somebody. The larger part, and it’s getting larger and larger as I go through life, is a very non-critical, non-judgmental view of somebody doing anything. Because what you discover eventually is that, anytime you meet anybody or see anybody doing anything, you’ve really already created in your own mind an identity for them and a critique for them. You don’t really know the person but you criticize them in your head. So what I do when I’m watching a guitar player, if they have no technique or maybe too much technique, I don’t judge it at all. And what happens is that you see this person is being animated by something else. You see that what they’re doing is expressing themselves the best way they can at that particular time. And that’s all than anybody can do—to do their best at any particular moment. You can’t say, “They should be like this” or “they should be like that”. They’re incapable, and I’m incapable of being anything besides what I am at this particular moment. As you go through life, you go through experiences that change you and educate you. But ultimately, what is, is. When I see somebody playing, I see the universe expressing itself through people. You asked about Frank [Zappa], and I saw that with him. Frank was completely in the moment when he created music. He didn’t make any excuses and whatever he did he was completely invested in it. It was his way of expressing himself. And if somebody picks up an instrument and tries to express himself even though he can’t even play it very well, I see it as something very beautiful, there’s something absolutely beautiful about it. You’re listening to God, in a sense, expressing yourself in a multitude of ways. So that’s what I prefer to do nowadays, instead of saying, “Wow, they can’t play as fast as me.”
Your new music is challenging but also accessible, song-based.
I just go by ideas. Whatever idea comes up, that’s what I follow. Sometimes it goes towards convention, sometimes it makes sense and sometimes it doesn’t. The song is very important, but sometimes I do something unexpected because that’s what the vision was and I’m not thinking about the price I have to pay later. You just go with what you’re feeling and then the song takes shape. There’s many different kinds of musicians and each one has a different set of tools. Some have a tremendous amount of technique and technical musical information, and some are completely emotional, that just create out of the way they feel and don’t use the intellectual mind at all. Well, anybody on either end will be at a deficit. Because you need a balance. If you’re only emotional and don’t have any way of really expressing your visions, because you’re done away all with technical ability, then you’ll destroy your potential to get your ideas really across. And if all you do is intellectual or technical, then your music will have no soul to it.
What are you going to play in San Antonio?
I like to build a show that’s entertaining on many different levels. I like people to feel that they’re seeing great musicianship, a show with great dynamics, very intense sometimes and at times very delicate. The songs are selected by the event flow. Usually we play about five or six songs from the new record, a handful of songs people were expecting and then a handful of songs that I have either never played or haven’t played in a long time. This show has a lot of that. Everybody gets a little moment to shine, and we have an acoustic set. One of the things that we do that’s been going on really well is that I invite people up from the audience to build a song with us onstage. For example, I have someone come up and I have him or her sing a drum beat, Jeremy [Colson] plays the drum beat, then I have him sing a bass part, and then they sing a melody for me to play. It’s great, you’ll be so surprised to see some of the results. It’s really amazing.
A lot has been said about the importance of “practicing” for mortal musicians. But how does someone at your level “practice”?
My level is relative, because your level is how you see yourself. To this day, the thing that’s most interesting and exciting to me is the same thing that was most interesting and exciting when I was very young, and that’s to pick up the guitar and have an idea of playing something, and work on it and suddenly being able to play it. That never goes away, you never run out. If you run out it means the universe is limited. Everyday is an opportunity to find something that’s different. Now, do I sit and practice? Well, no. I mean, sometimes I do certain mindless things to warm up, but for the most part, no matter what I have to do, even if it’s just play the guitar or record, I usually take about an hour at the end of the day and I just sit for an hour and shut the door and just play the guitar. That’s my favorite moment.
I don’t remember if it was Pete Townsend telling Clapton, or the other way around, but when they saw Hendrix in concert for the first time, one told the other, “Man, I just saw someone who’s going to put us all out of work.” Who’s the guy you feel could put you “out of work”? Is there anyone you look up to?
Yes: Allan Holdsworth. When I look at any guitarist in the world, the analytical head of mine kicks in and I know in my head what they’re doing. Is not that I wish I could do that or I would even try it; I’m perfectly happy with them doing it. But when I listen to Allan Holdsworth play, I’m stunned. I can’t believe how amazing, and beautiful, and musical and melodic he is. It’s almost as if he’s undiscovered. He’s way ahead of his time and I just don’t think he’s understood.
Are you eating? I hope it’s veggie stuff.
[Laughs loudly] I apologize for eating doing the interview!
No problem, as long it has no meat.
I just finished and no, it’s no meat at all. It’s an eggplant sandwich.
Good. Unlike you, I’m the vegetarian that criticizes other. I’m the militant pain in the ass type. Are you a veggie for ethical or health reasons?
Well, I’ve been a vegetarian for 32 years now. I haven’t talked much about it. You’d tell people you were a vegetarian back then and they’d think you’re weird. But it just works for me. When I started I wasn’t very healthy, I didn’t feel good, I was going through a lot of mental depressions. Being a vegetarian was one of the things I did to change my whole life. It works for me on a health level and on a moral level. I just feel better, but I don’t criticize anybody nor do I care at all what anybody eats.
I’m really excited to be [in San Antonio]. Look at the [tour] reviews on ticketmaster.com to see what to expect. It’s really hard for me to convince people to come to the show. When an artist says, “Come to my show!” What does it mean? It doesn’t mean anything.
Really? You have trouble convincing people to come? I find that hard to believe.
It’s more effective if they hear it from somebody else. [The show has] gone as long as three hours, but it’s usually two and a half. Is that long? It doesn’t feel long when you’re watching it, but you’ll have to be the judge of that.
An Evening with Steve Vai
Doors at 7pm Wed, Nov 20
1305 E Houston