A Conversation with Guitar Legend Steve Vai

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To the casual music listener, Steve Vai is likely not a household name. Despite a career spanning more than 30 years, sales topping 15 million albums, work with the likes of Frank Zappa, David Lee Roth and Whitesnake, plus a mountain of Grammys and other awards on his mantle, there are those who know him more for his guitar duel with Ralph Macchio in the movie Crossroads. Vai’s music has traditionally appealed most to a combination of in-the-know musos, fellow guitarists and fans of flashy instrumental guitar music.

However, make no mistake: Steve Vai is a true original and a musical virtuoso.  Schooled at the prestigious Berklee College of Music and then under the wing of Frank Zappa, he is one of a select group of guitarists – Jimi Hendrix, Edward Van Halen, Jimmy Page, Jeff Beck and Les Paul come immediately to mind – who have advanced and innovated the instrument as an art form.

Vai’s music is rock-based and incorporates esoteric and progressive elements but he is the farthest thing from an all-shred, no-substance speed demon who forgets to put the song into a song.  Songwriting is his craft, and the musical journey he provides his fans is always satisfying, as repeated listens always reveal multiple layers of musical detail. Onstage, Vai is the consummate showman, providing the audience with a slew of “How the hell did he do that?” moments.  He always makes it look easy, much to the amazement of the legions of worshipping guitarists and wannabees who attend his shows.

We caught up with Vai, who’s currently on tour in support of his brilliant new album, The Story of Light. It’s the second part of a planned trilogy of albums that began with 1995’s Real Illusions: Reflections.

Weeping Elvis: It’s been seven years since your last studio album.  When did you begin the process for The Story of Light?

Steve Vai: Before I began my last studio record, Real Illusions, I wanted to do something a little different, a little esoteric, and I had this interesting story – basically a human condition story.  I wanted it expressed over a long period of time because, this way, as I evolve and my perspectives evolve, I could change the story.  So I thought, I’d do this concept and break it down over three records and make the songs depictions of characters and events from the story.  Then I’d give little hints of the story through some of the liner notes or some of the lyrics and mix up all the songs so you can’t really follow the order.  Some people are very interested in getting into those details and trying to figure things out and some people aren’t at all, they just want to listen to the music. So, in a way it can satisfy both.  So, The Story of Light is really the second installment of the concept for Real Illusions and my plan, if things work out, is to do another record sometime in the future.  Then, sometime after that, take all three records and combine them into one 4-CD set with new material, narrative, all the songs in the right order, maybe some melody songs would have some vocals, and it would be a real accessible, theatrical story.  If a person isn’t interested in all that stuff, they could just enjoy the music.

WE: When you started working on Real Illusions, did you have most of overarching concept/storyline/narrative worked out?

SV: Absolutely.  I had the narrative arc of the story basically worked out in my head and much of it sketched.  Then I took slices of moments in the story and used those to construct songs.  When you go to write a song there are so many ways you could be inspired. And, if you have a story you’re trying to tell through the music, it can help to shape the songs.

WE: It must be more challenging when you’ve got a theme, but you aren’t necessarily conveying that through traditional lyrics.

SV: Not necessarily, because I know that in the long run, it’s going to be very well displayed, either through lyrics or as emotional snapshots in melodies.  The thing that’s a bit challenging is that there are a lot of different styles on my records.  I have songs like “Die to Live,” then I have songs like “Freak Show Excess” – they’re very compositional and very simple, broken down, trio kinds of pieces. I have pieces that are acoustic vocal ballads, and then I have some kinds of weird curves that I throw in there like “Dying For Your Love” on Real Illusions or “The Book of the Seven Seals” on The Story of Light.  “John the Revelator” and “Book of the Seven Seals” are very theatrical and kind of bombastic but it was part of the story and part of the narrative. It polarizes fans sometimes when you do the diverse kinds of records that I do. Some just want to hear the crazy guitar stuff, some like the vocal stuff, some like the very compositional stuff, some like the very intense stuff, and, as a result, you have a core audience that loves everything you do regardless, but that’s a small part of your core audience, in a sense.  But when I set out to make The Story of Light I had to make a choice. I was going to do a very cohesive record, sort of like an Alien Love Secrets record – a very simple, broken down guitar instrumental record – but I just started getting into the Real Illusions concept and I felt that I needed to get that out as the next statement.

WE: Over the years, has your approach to songwriting changed?  Is it different now than, say, when you were writing Passion and Warfare or The Ultra Zone?

SV: No, not at all.  I use any means necessary to write a song.  For me, there are a couple of criteria I need to feel before I engage in writing a piece of music.  First and foremost, I have to see the big picture of the piece, and secondly, it has to excite me to no end. It has to excite me so much that I can’t live without doing it.

WE: Have you ever felt that you’ve written something that you can’t play, or require significant practice to be able to play at the level you require? Is there anything from the new album that fits that description?

SV: Absolutely. Take a song like “The Story of Light,” the whole first part with that big set of chords. Those are hard chords to play and they have to be played a certain way so every single note rings out as if it has its own identity. You can’t just strum those chords.  I heard it in my head and I then built it.  That melody at the end – that’s not a solo. It’s a composed melody and my approach to it was a little piece at a time.  When I approached each piece I had to ask myself “What are you going to do here in your phrasing that’s different from anything you’ve done, and that is musical?” So then, when you put it all together you get an almost impossible piece of music to play. But then you work on it because you know you can do it, because you did it. You just have to connect all the pieces and that’s how you expand your vocabulary on the instrument.

WE: Do you think your audience has changed over the years?

SV: Absolutely.  I think that a sector of the audience is really interested in what I do on the guitar and couldn’t care less about the vocal stuff.  Some parts of the audience – more lately than ever – are interested in the overall dynamic.  They’re like, this guy isn’t just a guitar player that’s doing instrumental guitar music. He’s doing these compositional things, he’s doing these tender things, he’s doing these bombastic things and it’s more of a ride for them, and they like that because they just like variety more. I’m not saying that any way is better than the other. It’s the beautiful thing about music and artists – it’s the diversity, because every artist has a way of expressing themselves and as a result, there are people that gravitate to those artists because they find satisfaction in them.

Steve Vai will be performing at the Howard Theatre in Washington, DC, on Aug. 28 and other North American dates through mid-October.  The Story of Light is available now, from Favored Nations Entertainment. For tour dates and more information, check out Vai.com.

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