Spending 30 minutes in the company of Steve Vai is time well spent. It will leave you refreshed, invigorated and inspired for the challenges ahead. An amazing 39-year career shows no sign of slowing down with the impressive Inviolate released last year, and Gash, a heartfelt tribute to his fallen friend Johnny Sombrotto, hitting the shelves last month.
In Part Two of an interview with MetalTalk’s Paul Monkhouse, Vai talks about his career and his passion for innovating. You can read Part One, where Steve says that “with every fibre of my being, Johnny Sombrotto would have made an incredible rock star,” here.
It is wonderful the love Steve has for Johnny Sombrotto. Would he consider doing any of the songs from Gash live now, or would it be difficult to do it without the presence of him singing them?
“Well, it’s like trying to replace Devin Townsend or something. You can’t do it. I’m going out on tour next month for the rest of my Inviolate tour, but based on the success of how this record is turning out, The Gash record, so far, it’s shocking me. I mean, it’s number four on Rock Radio. How does that happen? It’s never happened to me in my life, you know, and the response is such a surprise and delight. I mean, you just never know. There are so many things that I’ve released where I thought, oh man, my fans are really gonna like this, they’re really gonna love this, I can’t wait for them to hear it. And then they’re just like, hmmm.
“So I give up trying to second guess the fans completely. But if there’s enough of a demand, I thought it might be nice if I could work a couple of songs in during the show because they’re so short and they’re so rock ‘n’ roll. But the big challenge is who’s gonna sing it? Not Me, brother. So I got a couple of guys in the band that are honing their singing chops. And if there are any songs that the audience can help out with. There’s no Gash in the picture, brother.”
Vai has been such a creative spirit from his early days, when he started playing, from the very first time he hit a note on a piano and then, the following year, guitar. There’s a wonderful quote that is attributed to him: ‘The creation of music is an infinite personal expression. I realised I could do this, I could make music and it could be whatever I want.’ That is just a fantastic thing.
Vai has shown through his amazing 39-year career, he is flexible, but what he has achieved is pretty mindblowing. He has worked with Zappa, Whitesnake, David Lee Roth and with Alcatrazz, who we saw on Saturday. “Wonderful,” Vai says. “Give them my love.”
I’ve always seen Steve Vai as someone who is an innovator. I draw a parallel between Vai and the late, great Jeff Beck. Like Beck, Vai had that same, almost unique style, where he led the way. Having spoken to several of my friends who are guitarists, they just say Vai just creates these amazing pieces.
“That’s touching, and it’s inspiring, thank you,” Vai smiles. “I never thought my name would be mentioned in the same sentence as someone like Jeff Beck. He was inspirational to me throughout my whole career. More heavily in the beginning, obviously.
“I think that through my whole career, it seems simple, you know… Only do what you feel good doing, and the rest will take care of itself. Because when I think people say, well, how did you have all these successes? I think when I try to put my finger on it… when I look back through my career, it’s the most important thing to me of paramount importance. There are a lot of things that are important in an artist’s career. How you’re gonna balance your books, how you’re gonna move around and who you’re going to work with and how you’re going to afford it. All these things are very important. But they are of relative importance. They’re not of vital importance. They’re important, but they’re not the thing that is of vital importance.
“When I recognised, for me, and I didn’t know this was happening, from the very beginning, it was what you had mentioned, that idea that the creation of music is infinite. Anybody that would argue with that is saying that the universe is limited. So, knowing that I’m here, I’m just one little individual, but I have choices. You can tell that you’re the one sailing the ship because you’re the one thinking your thoughts. Nobody else. Who has control over those thoughts? Nobody but you. You make your own reality. You make your own life situation, and my life situation basically, the situation I was making was, I love this, I really love this.
“I love when I can’t do something, and all of a sudden, it starts to happen. That’s the dope. That’s the real payoff. That turns into passion. The evolution. Enthusiasm is passion, and all of the things that look like success come as a consequence of that. So with Zappa, I didn’t ask Frank to be in the band. You don’t do that. He asked me because of my love of the instrument and to play the kind of things that he was writing. Then, you know, with Crossroads, they called me. I turned down being the character in the movie once, and then they asked again. And why? Because I had something here that was a result of that little passion. So you can find that at the foundation of everything.
“And here’s the thing… everybody is doing, well, maybe not everybody, but a lot of people are doing this. It’s as simple as this. If you’re fortunate enough to find something that is of great interest to you when you’re young, and you focus on it, and you just don’t let up, you will innovate. Everybody, anybody. You’re a writer. There was a point in your life, I would assume, where you felt, I got this. I know how to do this. I know how to write. I know how to communicate, and if you stick with it and you have a passionate spirit for it, you’re gonna evolve. You will innovate. That’s how it happens.
“People who have a passion or are in a state of passion with their interests must innovate. It happens automatically and unconsciously. And for someone like me, with the Jem guitar, I was totally unconscious. It was so simple. I want this. Nobody’s gonna be interested? I don’t care. I know what I want, I want this.
“So the moral of the story, I guess, is it’s okay to throw yourself into the things that are interesting to you. That’s really it, and don’t let up. You won’t want to. When you realise your own freedom, there’s no letting up.”
Similar to Steve, I say that with my writing, I’m always trying to make it better. I never just sit on my laurels and think, yeah, that piece was great. It’s always, right, okay, what’s the next challenge? What’s the next thing? I get that very much from him.
“The same mechanism is in place in me,” Steve says.
Many guitarist friends have said that Steve Vai has encouraged them with their own self-expression. They’ve listened to him, and that’s been their inspiration. His ability to make people think, ‘yeah, you know what? I can do that, you know.’ It’s a constantly giving thing, I suggest to Steve.
“I know how important it was for me when people I looked up to inspired me and encouraged me. That’s really important to do. There are always people that have mature skills and insights that are pulling you up and you’re always pulling somebody else up because there are levels of people’s state of accomplishment or skill. It varies tremendously, and everybody falls someplace in there. You are always inspiring those that haven’t quite reached that yet.
“I’m always being inspired by those. I have just so much faith in the people who find the thing that they love doing. My message is basically to them, you’re not gonna be happy any other way, and you’re allowed to do what you want. How do you like that?
“You don’t need to become a victim of your own ego, which is usually in fear about the future. You only ever feel fear when your thoughts are focused on some fantasy future event that the ego loves to stress over, that you don’t have coping mechanisms to deal with because they’re fantasies and that creates stress, and that blocks your natural, unique and instinctual creative flows.
“You said it. I mean, you nailed it. I still want to improve myself. Why? Because it’s fun. It’s good, and the same mechanism is in place in me, and, you know, my goal is to.. one of my goals is to just let people know that that same mechanism is in place for them. They’re worthy of it. And not only that, we need it. We need people’s free-flowing, uniquely creative expressions to flow into the world because we can’t do anything without each other’s contributions. You can’t do anything. I can’t. My records are gonna sit on the shelf until you review them. We’re working together. The world says, oh yeah, ‘but you’re Steve Vai’. No fucking way. In reality, we’re a team. We all are because I need listeners, and I’m a service provider. I can provide entertainment. That’s what happened.”
I saw Vai at the London Palladium last year, and it was a great show. Vai had such a great time on stage, another great example of everyone working together. Vai is an apiarist. My father has kept bees, and it’s interesting how they work together. Vai comes across as a very spiritual guy, very rooted in the whole universe. He can perform those big rock shows, and then he is at home beekeeping. Being his own man, is it easy to work with other people in a band, or is the freedom of actually doing what he wants, when he wants with his own material, a more natural thing?
“It’s based on what the expectations are for the project,” Steve says. “So if I go into PiL with John Lydon, I contributed to that record, I’m not going in there telling them how I think the songs should be structured or making contributions on the way the drums sound. No, my role, my expectation, was to go in there and lay the guitars down.
“So I accept that, you know. My parameters then. Go there, and within this, I’m expected to be Steve Vai, with my fingers on the guitar but not picking the songs or anything like that. Now, when I was with someone like Dave Roth or Alcatrazz, it was more of a band. That was my choice to go into it, knowing this is a co-collaborative effort and it’s a committee of many people. Every note you want to play or record in a sense because there are producers, there are record companies, there are band leaders, there are other band members, and I like that. I can very much enjoy that environment.
“When you’re with other creative people, it’s fantastic, and yeah, you gotta work things out sometimes. When I was in Alcatrazz, I was a bit of a pain in the ass because I wanted things a certain way. It was a learning experience for me of what a band is, which is the unconditional acceptance of everybody else’s contribution and then making it work.
“So I’m very good when I know what’s expected of me. But for something like my solo work, my goal is to create a catalogue of music that’s undiluted by anybody else’s contribution. Like when I did the Gash record, it was a committee of one. I walked into the studio. I engineered it. I produced, laid down a click track, and improvised the bass parts, and nobody was there to tell me anything. And then I put the guitars down on my own, you know. So I can also do that and enjoy that.
“But then, when Polyphia calls and says, ‘hey, you want to do this solo?’ Well, then I’m gonna look at it like this and say, okay, how can I be the best I can be within these parameters?”