Archive / Exclusive Interview / Steve Vai Takes Us Ridin’ Into ‘The Ultra Zone’
First Published 17 August 2017
With tales of Nobel Laureates and Hot Chunks plus bee keeping secrets.
In the wake of the release of re-recorded and contemporised archive ‘Modern Primitive’, guitar maestro and artistic guru Steve Vai opens up his Jewel Box to discuss his creative process, his latest projects and his apian passion.
Interview: Andy Rawll
Tell me about how you went back to the archive material that became ‘Modern Primitive’?
“After I moved to Los Angeles when I was 20, I was totally fascinated with engineering and recording so I bought various multi-track machines. I didn’t really know what I was doing and I made this record called ‘Flex-able’, which was my first solo record and very quirky and bizarre and very Zappa influenced as I was working with Frank at the time.
“I never really planned to release it, but it seemed easy enough and so I did and then I put a band together called The Classified and I started writing more music. But then, I joined the band Alcatrazz and when I was with them I also received a solo record deal from Capitol Records and that’s when I put everything from The Classified on the shelf and started writing and recording ‘Passion And Warfare’ and then the Roth gig came along.
“When it was time to release the 25th anniversary of ‘Passion And Warfare’, I thought it might be quite cool to go back and take all that music that was on the shelf from The Classified and finish it, because there were only five or six tracks that were recorded that had only bass, drums and some rhythm guitar.
“So first of all, I finished those tracks and then I recorded from scratch, with the original band The Classified from thirty years ago, some songs that I had written in that period and that is what became ‘Modern Primitive’.
“If you follow my work, you have ‘Flex-able’ which is quite quirky and then ‘Passion And Warfare’ that’s much more mature, but there’s this gap in-between where you don’t think it’s the same guy that made ‘Flex-able’ and also made ‘Passion And Warfare’, but ‘Modern Primitive’ is effectively the missing link in the evolution of my creative process during that period.”
So is the album name a reflection of the fact that you were modernising some early primitive recordings?
“There you go!”
Given that you finished the recording recently, how were you able to tap into where your head was compositionally back when you came with those original ideas?
“All you have to do is to listen to something that you had recorded years ago and it’s like a little snapshot of who you were at that time. Although we all change, every moment of our life, when I was listening to the music of ‘Modern Primitive’ that I had recorded and written so long ago, I was immediately that guy again, because those musical sensibilities were still there, but they were enhanced by the maturity of thirty-five years of being a professional.
“You know when you’re young and you do something creative, you have this feeling almost like fearlessness. You don’t care what’s going to happen, what it means or whether it’s going to be accepted or not, you just have this burning desire to do something and you just do it, without any expectations. You just have to do it and that’s a beautiful place to create from and I highly recommend it.
“And that’s where that stuff was coming from, this place of unbridled desire. It’s great to retain that through the years and I have to a great degree, but now my musical sensibilities have been refined, my guitar playing has changed, your focus gets put on different things than you were previously doing. I mixed all of that together, because I felt that the music on ‘Modern Primitive’ still had some strong legs, it had that quirky, humorous, yet intense musical sensibility that I seem to gravitate to.”
Listening to it, it has a very contemporary vibe, it doesn’t have that commercial sheen to it and it has that great widescape sound and it’s a really fun listen.
“Thank you. I was never comfortable chasing that commercial sheen. I enjoy it, but as you can notice when you listen to something like ‘Modern Primitive’, it’s a different approach from that completely.”
I read, and please do tell me if you’ve been misquoted, that you described it as perhaps one of your favourite albums. Is that true?
“Absolutely. To be honest, and I’m a little embarrassed to say, but I can’t stop listening to it, and that’s wonderful.
“It’s great if you’re an artist and you create music and you listen to it a lot. Some artists, they do something and then they leave it and move on and don’t even listen to it again. I can understand that, but for me, that’s why I do it. One of the reasons I do it is so that I can listen to it and enjoy it. Because I’m not going to hear ‘Bop!’ or ‘Pink And Blows Over’ any other place.
“‘And We Are One’ is another great example of that. I worked so hard on that song to create unique guitar phrasing, unique for me. It’s always good to compete with yourself and try to outdo yourself from the previous incarnation, so to speak. And that song is almost as advanced on the guitar as I’ve ever gotten in regards to phrasing and that kind of thing.
“And I love listening to it, because it pushes all of those buttons in me, that I look for in music and I think that’s a very good thing. An artist always feels like their last work is their best work, maybe not always, but most of the time.”
So is that to say you can surprise yourself when you listen to it back and think ‘that’s cool’?
“Yes, I love surprising myself with stuff that I can do. Now whether it surprises anybody else is another story, but if you’re surprising yourself when you’re creating, you’re living life, man.”
The original idea, as far as I can see, is that you had the box set, which had ten slots and with ‘Modern Primitive’ you now have something for the seventh slot, as well as being available as a standalone album. As you still have slots eight, nine and ten to go, do you have anything in mind for those?
“Oh yeah, when I started the Jewel Box thing a couple of decades ago (or fifteen years, I can’t quite remember) the idea was to slowly fill it up with less mainstream-type releases and The Classified, which was the music that ‘Modern Primitive’ was derived from, was always slated to be the seventh disc in the box.
“The eighth, ninth and tenth are right now in conceptual phases. One of them is a live Alcatrazz show from Japan, because we never really released a proper live recording and I’ve got a relatively good one and I’ll work on it and mix it. And that was a double record, so that might even take-up two slots, but these days you can get much more on a single CD.
“Another one might be something I’ve just finished. I do this series of CDs called ‘Piano Reductions’ where I find a really great pianist and I work with them to record solo piano versions of a handful of my songs.
“And we released one, which we called ‘Piano Reductions Volume One’ with Mike Keneally and that came out years ago. It’s a beautiful, beautiful CD for Vai fans. And I just finished a new one with this Japanese virtuoso young female pianist whose name is Miho Arai and, holy shit man, she plays these songs like nothing I’ve ever heard. So that might be the next release in the box.
“Then I also have this concept to do this record called ‘Hot Chunks’ where I go back through my entire career of music and I just take snippets of stuff and I create one record, which is a kind of noisescape of abstract sounds that includes samples from my catalogue.”
So is there going to be a Hot Chunks of Rat, with some Zappa thrown in?
“Oh yeah, Hot Rat Chunks!”
Let’s talk a little bit about the teaching part of what you’re doing. It’s great to see Alien Guitar Secrets and the Academy and all those other academic initiatives still going on. How do you keep the education side fresh, having done it for so long?
“Because I enjoy it. I feel like I’ve received so much great wisdom from various teachers in my life. It’s not uncommon for a young musician to feel as though they don’t want formal training because they’re afraid that it might spoil them. That’s fine. You’re always learning anyway. If you listen to a record, you’re learning.
“You’re always teaching too, because whatever you play, you’re always inspiring somebody in some way or another. And to take it another step deeper, anything you do in any relationship you’re teaching and you’re learning. I’ve had so much great training as a musician through my life, both academically, technically and also experientially just by touring and making records and playing with so many different people and being involved in some many cool projects.
“One of the things that I’ve noticed when I look back through my career are pivotal moments of growth that really don’t necessarily have to do with academics, technique or even the people I was working with. They were more internal recognitions of the things that were really important to me. And also surviving thirty-seven years on tour, I learnt a lot about that.
“When I do my teaching, I talk about some of these things that you’re not going to learn by reading a book or by scouring the internet, because they’re more esoteric, so I have a tendency to be very esoteric in my teaching.”
You have these concepts of principles, like ‘The Ultra Zone’ and ‘The Infinity Shelf’ that are pretty unique to you, right?
“‘The Infinity Shelf’ is a term I use for the shelf full of all the snippets of old musical ideas that I keep, because I have thousands and thousands. It was called ‘The Infinity Shelf’ because it will take me infinite lifetimes to complete it all.
“‘The Ultra Zone’ is a term that I use for a state of mind that contains no thought, just intense awareness. It’s spoken about at the core of all spiritual teachings and it’s basically present-moment awareness, state of Zen, state of emptiness or intense awareness and connectedness.
“All of these terms sound relatively conventional and maybe some brouhaha in there or mumbo-jumbo. But I use the term ‘Ultra Zone’ for the state of mind of when you’re in your highest clarity, meaning when you’re doing something, you’re just connected.
“You’re in a state of intense awareness, in the moment, flowing with your creative instincts. Sort of like watching Tiger Woods hitting a ball or Michael Jordan flying through the air, or any great sports artist when they’re ‘on’.
“Or any great artist, when they’re peaking. Because in that state there’s only a connectedness with your instincts, so I call that ‘The Ultra Zone’. There’s no fear in it, there’s no concern about what other people are thinking, there’s no wondering if you’re better than everybody or if you’re worse than everybody, there’s no wondering even about what you’re going to do next, it just happens. And that’s a great way to play guitar and it’s a great state of mind to be in, and that’s what I talk about.”
And is that synonymous with what you refer to as ‘Musical Meditation’ as the precursor for getting into that zone and know that you’re able to think around?
“‘Musical Meditation’ is when your attention is on something so yes, it’s in the same neighbourhood.
“With ‘Musical Meditation’ you’re just focused on a single idea and developing it and developing it and looking for ways to take it. With ‘The Ultra Zone’, you’re basically letting go completely, you’re stepping out of the way and you’re just letting it flow and you have no idea what’s going to come next. It just comes and it’s inspired.”
A final question on this topic; you’ve been lecturing recently on the topic of ‘Creative Manifestation’. Is this the stage beyond that when you take that concentration, emptying the mind, the meditative process to then manifest that creatively?
“Well yes, and thank you for doing the research. The talk that I gave on ‘Creative Manifestation’ was at the last STARMUS convention, which is a science and art event in Norway and it was attended by some of the greatest scientists in the world. There were eleven Noble Laureates there and astronauts and I gave a talk and when you’re speaking to scientists, I didn’t want to try to teach them anything or knowledge, because I don’t know any science really.
“Of course, I’m fascinated with science and I kind of understand it, but what I was trying to share at that talk, was something that I felt really enhanced their ability to be creative in very positive ways and these are the kind of people that you want to inspire to think powerfully and creatively in positive ways, because they’re at the cutting edge of quality of life inventions.”
“The point I was trying to make is that it’s very helpful to experiment with states of mind that bring about a sense of deep peace and intense, beautiful clarity and this state of mind of thoughtless awareness, or ‘The Ultra Zone’ as I say, is the dimension within you that then your very best creative ideas can flow, so you have them.
“The only thing that’s blocking your very best creative instincts is the thoughts that are running around in your head. It’s not an easy practice by the way.”
Which brings nicely into what happens next. It looks like you’ve wrapped-up the last shows in the 25th anniversary tour. I’m thinking, based on your ethos towards creativity and some things you mentioned around the box set, what’s in Steve’s future, short, medium and long?
“I have a couple of simple things, like this piano CD and a couple of simple projects that I don’t want to mention yet, because I don’t know how they’re going to turn out.
“I’ve been feeling the pull for some years now to focus on a new record that’s pretty stripped-down, bass, drums and guitar, but with multiple guitars and multiple layers of delays and loops and stuff like that. This concept is kind of arising in me and I’m starting to visualise and this is a great thing to try to do.
“First, you enter ‘The Ultra Zone’ and you kind of create a clear slate and then you ask yourself, ‘what would I like to do? What would I really enjoy? What would be really cool?’
“So then, if you feel good about that and you start to get excited about the answers that will come, they start to come, so I started seeing this kind of evolution of my performance, because I love performing and I really feel that one of my jobs here, so to speak, is to be the best performer I can be.
“A lot of times, the way I move is kind of weird and awkward to some people, the facial expressions and things like that, but I’ve come to accept them within myself and I actually want to exaggerate it. This picture of myself performing is arising inside of me, now.
“This is so powerful if you can do this, because you start creating an image inside your mind of what you want to do and if you do that, it’s going to come from a place in you that’s authentic, that you can do and it’s unique.
“So, I’m starting to see that way I move, the way I phrase melodies, the intensity, certain evolutions in the beauty of what I’m doing. This is really a powerful way to create a project so that’s what I’m doing now, I’m kind of meditating on it and letting all the elements come together.”
The last time I saw you, and I’m based in London, was at the London Palladium and although you were playing ‘Passion And Warfare’, the way that you presented it, the way that you worked with the band, it was very much an ‘in-the-moment’ current performance. I found that, rather than just the revisiting of some classic material, I really felt that you’d evolved the piece.
One thing that I wanted to play back to you is, there a fantastic quote and I think it’s one of yours, when you describe ‘Passion And Warfare’ as ‘Jimi Hendrix meets Jesus Christ at a party that Ben Hur threw for Mel Blanc… an adventure in melodic, symphonic Heavy Metal metaphysics’.
“When they were writing the press release for ‘Passion And Warfare’ they asked me to give an explanation of the record, so I just took a left turn there and entered ‘The Ultra Zone’ and let the imagery kind of work out.
“Yes, if you listen to the music, those words are fair enough. It’s an intentional parody, but there’s some wisdom in that.”
Just two quick things before we wrap-up; I noticed from what you’ve been doing over the last couple of years, that separate to the G3 thing, you have that conglomerate of guitarists, Generation Axe, which I don’t think ever came over to the UK. Is that something that’s now in the past?
“It’s something that we experimented with. It was an idea that I had to bring five exceptional guitar players together with one backing band in a show that revolved and kept moving with people coming in and out and playing with each other.
“At times, there would be three, four, five guitar players on the stage playing organised music and not just jamming, playing these beautiful harmonies.
“I made lists of different genres, Metal, rock, blues, fusion, and then I wrote down my favourite guitar players within those genres and I chose the Metal version first and the guys that are on that list, Yngwie Malmsteen, Zakk Wylde, Tosen Abasi and Nuno Bettancourt, were the first guys that I approached and I was thrilled that they were interested in doing it.
“OK, I’ll be more honest about it, most people thought I was out of my mind, that I would be able to bring these guys together. Even they thought I was crazy, something told me, because this whole idea came about from ‘The Ultra Zone’, that it was going to work and it was going to be really great and actually exceptional and it was.
“We did that American tour and there were some bumps along the way at the beginning. But it was just remarkable that it happened and we became a really cohesive unit; we bonded, we became really good friends and it worked so well we wanted to do more.
“We finished an Asia run not too long ago and it was fantastic, so now we’re looking at possibly going to Europe next Spring, so hopefully that will work and we all want to do it, for sure. The only challenge in all this, is everybody’s schedule is so dense.
“It’s funny you know, Nuno said to me, and he echoed the sentiment of everybody, that it’s like we worked our whole life to get to the point to be able to take a vacation like this.”
I’m keeping the weirdest question until last. In 2012 you harvested 512 pounds of honey from your bees, so how are they doing these days?
“Well, the bees have seen some real challenges. When I harvested that much honey it was before the Colony Collapse Disorder and once that started to kick-in, my hives diminished, so now I only have one and I checked them the other day, so it’s strange that you ask.
“You know, they’re doing OK. It’s much harder to keep them now because of the colony collapse and I’ve lost all of my hives from the past, but this one seems to be going pretty strong, but they’re not making enough honey to harvest it, so we’ll have to see.
So you’ll have to get those bees into ‘The Ultra Zone’ and get creating?
“That’s exactly correct, we’ll get them on some voodoo acid.”