Steve Vai / “Johnny Sombrotto would have made an incredible rock star”

Steve Vai recently released the album Gash, a very worthy and heartfelt tribute to his fallen friend Johnny Sombrotto. In Part One of an interview with MetalTalk’s Paul Monkhouse, the wonderfully inspiring Vai talks about Gash, a release that stands as something both men could be truly proud of and how he knows, “with every fibre of my being,” Sombrotto “would have made an incredible rock star.”

“I feel blessed, really,” Steve told Paul Monkhouse. “I never expected to accomplish so much because I’ve always just felt like a chaser of good ideas. I didn’t realise, until way later, when people started asking me how it is you do so many diverse different things, that there’s a part of me that’s very uncomfortable with competing and having to stack up in a certain chart number or this kind of thing. It’s very weighing on an artist. Some people thrive on it, but I find it something I’m uncomfortable doing.

“So, as a result, I think what has happened is I just sort of surrender to ideas that feel compelling to me, and that’s really it. I think this is our natural state to find an interest in something and then just throw yourself into it without any excuses or fears or anything like that.

“There’s always the fear well, this can fail. I can fail. This might not fit in. How am I gonna pay for all of the things that I need to do? Where am I going to find the right people? What if I waste my time? What if it’s the wrong decision? So all of these things plague us, and they get in the way of our natural instinct to navigate ourselves to those creative things that are personal to us and also very fulfilling.”

“Because when I think about everything I’ve done, it’s been very fulfilling. The Inviolate record that I released last year, it’s nice. I love every song on there. I just did it because something said do this now. Then the Gash record that the same thing happened to me with that record 32 years ago. I was doing a bunch of stuff and riding my motorcycles with my friends, and something said go in the studio right now and just blast out a bunch of tracks that sound like the way you feel when you’re riding your bike with your friends. Just go and do that. But what about if I don’t just go and do it? Well, I’m in the middle of it, just go and do it.”

“So you surrender to your creative instinct, and interestingly enough, I did that back then with the Gash record and then he died. So a part of me that might have been listening to a 62-year-old Steve Vai saying no, just follow your instincts, might have said to him, well, I just spent all this time, and my plans were foiled. But they’re not foiled, they just have a little bit of a longer maturation period.”

Johnny 'Gash' Sombrotto and Steve Vai
Johnny ‘Gash’ Sombrotto and Steve Vai

Gash, an album of music written in the ’90s for a project with Johnny ‘Gash’ Sombrotto, was released at the end of January 2023. It was a project that was ultimately shelved in 1998 when vocalist Gash died in a motorcycle accident. Finally released, these tracks are the only memorial to Johnny’s musical talent, and it is a heartfelt tribute to Vai’s fallen friend.

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“I think it’s coming out at a perfect time,” Vai says, “and some people say, but if it would have come out back then? I can only try to remember how I felt back then when the idea of releasing it was on the table. It was an unequivocal ‘No’ because it was the wrong timing. It was ’92. Grunge had just decapitated the rock ‘n’ roll atmosphere pretty much.

“The kind of ’80s thing that the Gash record sounded like, I think the record was just too precious to me. I know that sounds kind of cheeky and prima donna-ish, but it’s true. You release product, you put the good fight in to get it out there, let people know it’s there, and compete, and I just didn’t want to do that with this project. It was just like, no, I’m just not going to throw to the wolves.

“It’s a personal, private, loving, joyful thing that I did. And as fate would have it, certain events transpired, and here it is. But really, I never thought I’d accomplished so much. And especially at my age now, it’s like everything is, for a guy like me, great.”

Steve Vai and Johnny 'Gash' Sombrotto
Steve Vai and Johnny ‘Gash’ Sombrotto

Vai and Gash had been friends for a long time before the recording. How did Steve realise that Johnny could sing? “I feel like I’m trying to sell something again, and it’s always uncomfortable for me to do that. But he was extraordinary just as a person. He was wild. He was the east coast New York, Italian hardcore biker with the biggest heart. I mean, the biggest heart and the most insane intentions. He was funny. He was unbelievably charismatic and totally unpredictable. You just never knew what he was going to do, and you better be ready. Unbelievably commanding. It’s the story when that guy is in the room, and he owns the room. He didn’t even have to try. He was just it and sometimes a real pain in the ass, so wild and crazy. But lovable and so committed.

“He would sing, but he would sing crooner style. He showed me some videos, one video in particular that he made for his dad singing a Frank Sinatra song because he could sound like Frank Sinatra. Uncanny. We were riding and having a great time, and I blasted out this record. When I was finished, I needed vocals and remember I was just doing it for us. In a fit of desperation, I put the vocals on it. It was a couple of songs, and it was an abysmal disaster because I don’t have that rock ‘n’ roll voice. I can’t fake it.

“I love my voice, but it’s very limited, and it’s only good for a certain kind of thing. But Gash had that rock ‘n’ roll voice. You can hear when people are speaking or if they scream if there’s a tonal quality there. My ear was recognising something. When he would yell or throw out a led Zeppelin, ‘oo yeah’ or something, and I’m like, what is that? I said, okay, come with me. I put him in the studio. He had never sung rock ‘n’ roll. I just told him, okay, sing these words, sing this melody and be you.

“And I gotta tell you, Paul, I just was stunned at what was coming out of his mouth. It went so quick and he just nailed it. So authentic and committed, honest, and that’s him. It’s all him. He had this sense of humour. He was very playful. He’d take the piss constantly, and you could hear it. Take these serious lines and throw them away, and I just love that because he didn’t take himself seriously.

“And when we were done, what I was thinking was, there was so much raw talent there that I wanted to go back, fix a few things, and nurture. I’m a great teacher. I’m a really great good producer for vocalists and a teacher, a musical teacher kind of thing, and I just saw the potential in him to do incredibly extraordinary things. I’m telling you, we hardly scratched the surface. It was like, okay, sing … wow, okay, next.. I would help him phrase something. But there are loose ends. There are so many loose ends on the record because they were demos, you know? And I thought that I would tweak them a bit and whatever. But then, finally, when johnny died, it was just one of those things. Okay, this is done, and I put it on the shelf for 32 years.

“I listened to this record so many times because there was something in it that I just loved. It captured for me my youthful love of rock, just straight-ahead rock. Just good melody, uplifting, energetic, not serious. There’s no wanky wanky guitar stuff. If you listen to a lot of the stuff I’ve done with some of the rock bands from the past, I’m navigating the vocals, and I’m doing all this, you know, I like my guitar parts to be wide open.

“This record, it’s all about Gash. It’s about the vocals. It’s not about Steve Vai, and that’s what I wanted. I just didn’t want to clutter it with anything, and I love the way it came out. Finally, I thought I have to release this one day. I kept thinking, yeah, but I gotta tweak it, and I got to fix this, and I got to do that. Then I just said, no, no, no. I took the tapes directly from the vault where they were sitting on the shelf for all those years. First, we had to bake them, because of that whole story. I sent them right to Mike Fraser who mixed it. There was only one thing on the entire record that I fixed, that I changed, and that’s the first chorus in Flowers Of Fire. He sang it better in the second verse. So I just digitised that one area took the second chorus, and put it in the first. But that is it on the whole record, just tremendously unlike me.”

It is a tremendously live-sounding record, natural sounding. Johnny has a raw rock ‘n’ roll voice, but there was a soulfulness in it as well, and it works really well with the material. If Johnny’s fate was different, and the album had been released and blown up massively, how does Steve think Johnny would have reacted to everything? Would he have been able to go along with it and see where it went?

“We never know these things, but I had some experience at that point, and I knew what heavy exposure and instant recognition in a particular genre do to people. Johnny would have navigated it because I was there with him. I know that sounds weird, but he trusted me, and he loved me. He really did, and vice versa. I would have let him run absolutely wild within reason because he was so unpredictable. He would do the most insane things. If you look at the back of the album cover, there’s a picture of him riding his bike. He was sitting on the backseat and turned around flipping the bird. That was normal for him. We would be standing there, and he would be riding by, standing on the seat. He was a daredevil, and it finally killed him.”

Photo of Johnny Sombrotto
Johnny Sombrotto – “He was a daredevil, and it finally killed him.”

“He was in various accidents. I mean he was a good driver, within reason, but he wasn’t within reason. He was crazy. So how would he have navigated the hypothetical scenario of this record being released back then and people getting him? He would have made it. I know this. I just feel it with every fibre of my being. He would have made an incredible rock star.

“Because I know, and I worked with these guys, and I know there’s a big difference between a great singer and a rock star that can stand in front of an audience and authentically take control in an engaging, charismatic ownership kind of a way. I’ve been on the stage with people who can do that. I’ve been on the stage with people who could do that and can’t sing great. People who can do it and can sing great, and people who can sing great and can’t do it. It’s very rare to find both of those qualities. He had that, and he would have loved the fame because he thrived on attention. All the rockstar DNA shit, it was in there, and I reckon I’m an authority at recognising it in the singer. I’ve had so much experience with it.

“But on another level, on a more realistic level, which is the way this is happening, I think it’s kind of nice that people have an opportunity. I mean, those that are into this record and this kind of thing, they have an opportunity to create a fantasy, an alternate reality, you know, kind of alternate universe. That’s what I do.

“When I listen to this record, I see Gash. I see Johnny Gash on that stage, in that arena commanding. I know every move he would do, I just know it. I knew him so well. I know that audience so well. I know these songs and how people react live to songs like this, and he would have been a commanding presence, I’m sure of that.

“But now he can definitely be one because you can create, and that’s what I do. Okay, so if I’m laying in bed and I’m remembering my past with Dave Roth where I’m on that stage or Whitesnake or something like that, that’s a memory, right?

“I can create a fake memory, so to speak, an alternate universe of a life that happened to me right around Dave Roth period, where Johnny Gash was the singer, and we did this stuff, and we went out and it blew up and it was all that fun stuff. Because I’ve been through it, you know. So I like to think that. It’s nice that I could have that fantasy and also Passion and Warfare, The Ultra Zone and Inviolate. I’ve lived a charmed life.”

You can read Part Two here.

Sleeve Notes

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