Intervju med Steve Vai!
Nyligen hade jag det stora nöjet att ringa upp gitarrvirtuosen Steve Vai. Han befann sig för tillfället i Ukraina för några konserter, vilket gjorde att det här blev första samtalet till landet i öster.
Steve gjorde ju sig ett namn med geniet Frank Zappa, men breaket för den stora massan kom troligtvis när han blev gitarrist i Diamond Daves soloband i samband med hans platta "Eat ém and smile".
Just nu är herr Vai aktuell med nya plattan "The story of light", vilken vi givetvis snackade om, men det blev även lite snack om de nyss nämnda herrarna, Aimee Mann och vad som hände med den där hjärtformade gitarren.
How´s the Ukraine treating you?
Steve Vai: So far so good. We arrived yesterday and we all went out to a traditional Ukrainian restaurant and had an absolutely amazing time and right now I´m sitting outside the hotel waiting to go across the street and do a sound check.
Have you ever played there before?
SV: I´ve done a master class here or I think I´ve might have done a couple of them. I´m not sure. Something tells me I´ve been here several times. I´m usually not very good at remembering where I´ve been. (laughs)
Playing in countries like that, is there a difference audience wise that you can tell about?
SV: Usually there are different dynamics from the audience in various parts of the world. Like in Latin countries people go a little bit more berserk, but the places like France will surprise you. They scream at every little thing and also the audiences have changed through time. The first time I came to Russia was in the early 90´s and it was extremely different of an audience reaction. Back then you gotta remember that communism had virtually just come to an end and people were still not sure how ok it was to show their enthusiasm. I remember the first time I played in Russia, you could tell that people were enjoying it but they were just in a way reserved and almost in a fearful way. At one point of the show I just went up to the mic and said “Listen, whatever goes on in the outside world, it´s different than what´s going on in here right now. This is a place for you to be who you wanna be and to feel freedom and liberation from any kind of restrictions!”, I just went on like that for a while and they just completely blew the roof off the place and it was amazing. Now when you come to Russia to perform, they are similar to Latin audiences where they really get it and are just with you the whole time. A political change can change the way people respond to concerts too. Then you go to places like Japan. They´re very reserved during the show, but when it comes time to clap, they clap really loud and they scream really loud and then they close up again. The thing I´ve noticed is that all around the world, regardless of what the response is like, everybody is enjoying it probably the same.
Right. Congrats on a great sounding album! I really like it. How long did you work on this one?
SV: Well, probably about a year and in that year I had to jump occasionally to some other projects, but between a year and a year and a half. I started in January 2011.
What made you work with Aimee Mann, who´s a great singer by the way, and then this girl from the show The Voice?
SV: When I write a song I try to let the song tell me what it needs. The first thing I need when I write a song is a good, clear, excited idea about what I wanna do and something has to reach a certain excitement level for me, in order for me to start going through the motions of doing it. When it came time to… well, what I should say is, I´d heard this old blues track by Blind Willie Johnson called “John the Revelator”. I was very taken by it and I immediately heard it with all these gigantic guitars and screaming vocals along with his voice. I built the track and “John the Revelator” and “Book of the seven seals” were actually one track and I cut them in half, so when I´m referring to “John the Revelator” I´m also kinda referring to “Book of the seven seals”. Then I had this vision of this huge choir and I found this version online of a high school singing an exceptional arrangement of “John the Revelator” and I took it, rerecorded it and built the track around it and that became “Book of the seven seals”. When it came time to write the vocal line for “John the Revelator” I was gonna do it myself, but I know of my limitations and I know what I sound like and although I think my voice is appropriate for some things, it just wasn´t gonna cut it. I needed something else. It´s almost like the universe said “Ok, you just finished the track and this is what you want!”, because the next day after I finished the track, I saw Beverly McClellan perform and I was just completely blown away. I said “She´s the one!” and I´m very lucky because she was interested in doing it and it was just such a great experience. With Aimee it was very similar. I had this track, this beautiful track and there´s a miracle conceptual continuity with the story and I went to write the lyrics, but I just kept hitting this brick wall and that usually tells me I have to take a different approach. When I was in college, I went to Berklee College of Music, we went to school together and she was living in the same apartment building a couple of doors away, so I would see her all the time and my girlfriend at the time, who is now my wife, was very good friends with Aimee. Through the years I´ve always had Aimee´s music in the house and there was something very poetic about her lyrics and they felt very powerful and her voice has this really kinda like subtle fragility to it but also a confidence to it. When I was hitting the wall with the lyrics, my wife said “Why don´t you call Aimee!” and my first thought was “Wow, that´s kinda outside of my radar.”, but immediately I thought “Oh yes, this could work.”. I was fortunate because Aimee liked the track and it works very well with her style of music and style of singing, but also with my style of singing and she wrote all the lyrics and the lyrics work beautifully with the melody and also with the concept of the story, so that´s how that came about. It was a wonderful collaboration, because I don´t collaborate very often.
It´s a great song. What happened in Amsterdam then, since it´s called “No more Amsterdam”?
SV: Well, it´s really part of the story. In the story there´s this guy who confronts his guardian angel or the voice of his better judgment and he realizes his whole life, this voice was always there trying to encourage him to grow. It´s kinda the same voice that is in all of us. The thing about lyrics is that you can take it anywhere you want. You can see it as Amsterdam being the place of vice and dope and porn and all that stuff and you need to get away from that, but it wasn´t really the intention. It was more about a person who has his roots someplace and that they´re very fond of, that has offered a lot, but you gotta move on and grow and take other life challenges. That´s basically what the songs is about.
The artwork for the album then? Who did that? I saw this other picture on your website where you´re standing with some kinda flashlight against a wall and it says “The story of life”, which I thought was really cool as well. I thought that was the album cover when I first saw it.
SV: It´s very interesting that you mention that, because I toyed with the idea. I was actually torn a bit because I wanted that to be the album cover, the picture of me with the light, but because it´s part of the “Real illusions” trilogy I wanted to keep the continuity of the fantasy look. I went to the same artist that did “Real illusions”, Andrea Cobb. She´s a brilliant artist and she made that piece for me.
Your logo, which is kinda Egyptian looking, was that her as well?
SV: No that´s something I came up with with a graphic designer many years ago. I wanted something that looked like my name, but which also looked like ancient hieroglyphics and it´s very interesting because it´s a series of pyramids with an eye in it and it spells Vai.
Looking back at all your previous albums, is there any artwork that you feel is your favorite one? One that stands out that you really think came through?
SV: Yeah, “Real illusions”. That cover just absolutely moves me and I don´t know why. It´s not rock and roll and it´s not what people would think an instrumental guitar player should have. You know all that stupid shit. I´m captivated by it every time I see it.
Ok. Back to writing songs. Is it a vision that tells you that this song needs vocals and this song doesn´t? What is it that makes you add vocals to some tracks and not others?
SV: That´s a good question. I would say that probably 70 % of the time, the song tells me if it´s instrumental or if it´s a vocal track. There´s this other percent of the time where it could go either way. Sometimes I struggle with it. “No more Amsterdam” was originally slated to be an instrumental track and the “Real illusions” concept with “The story of light” being the second installment and my plan is to do a third installment with another record and eventually take all the songs and put them in the proper order and make like a four CD package that has narrative and a very easy to follow concept and a lot of the instrumental songs would then have vocals added to them. On this record alone it could be all vocal melodies. I think there are so many songs on this album where you can take the melodies and make them vocal. I´d like to do that actually with these tracks.
I think the title track and also the final track on the album “Sunshine electric raindrops” are my absolute favorites. Especially the last track.
SV: Thank you! That was a riff I just kept kicking around and I just kept going back to it, but there was something that kept me from recording it because it sounded so pop, but there was something very touching about the melody. It had that little spark that put me over the edge and I had to record it.
You being such a master of your instrument, are there any new guitarists coming out that you find interesting or that might influence you in any way?
SV: Well, there´s always people doing interesting things and they are very genre specific, you know. My oldest son who is 23 now, brings home some really intense, progressive metal music. He listens to all this heavy stuff and bands with weird names like I Wrestled A Bear Once and I can´t believe what´s going on with some of this music. I listen to Animals Are Leaders with Tosin Abasi. He´s doing some very interesting things in a contemporary metal format, but as far as somebody that has come along that has the whole package like a Hendrix or Van Halen, these guys that are really universal with the way they play, I don´t hear anything. But that´s just me, it doesn´t mean anything.
Going back to when you started playing with Frank Zappa. What did you learn from that experience working with a guy like him?
SV: I learned the importance of independence. Independence in the way you think, about your music, independence in how you protect yourself in the business, independence in creating the music you want and not allow anything to get in your way, financial independence, how to be the best band leader that I could be as Frank was a phenomenal band leader. He was just extraordinary and there´s no way to really quantify the importance of his contribution. Not only in the historical realm of music, but in the personal impact he had on me. He was a mentor.
Cool. You played with David Lee Roth, which is quite the opposite of Frank Zappa in a way and I love the “Eat ém and smile” album and the “Skyscraper” album. What was that first tour like, the “Eat ém and smile tour”? It was a huge show, huge stage in the mid 80´s when everything was crazy. What was it like?
SV: It´s another thing that is hard to describe because it´s like you were on a beach and you found a bottle with a genie in it. (laughs) “I can make any wish you want come true!”, and it was like “Oh, let me see. I would like to know what it would be like to be a big rock star in a time where you can dress however you want, you can play on a stage with the biggest light show with the most charismatic front man and I could play a guitar and be recognized as a great guitar player and just throw the guitar around and play the shit out of it and be in an environment where you could have anything you want basically!” and the little genie would say “Ok.” Poof! “Here it is! You get four years with David Lee Roth!”. It was amazing. Even going through it, I knew it was something that would be really great to experience, but I didn´t fall into it and it didn´t grab its hooks into me because I had music in my head that I was really compelled to create in the future and I knew that back then. That was my armor against the ego centric extravagance that you could be captivated with. The fame and the money and all that stuff. I always had the desire to make music. That was always number one sort of or number two. Number one was something more personal but it was the powerful armor that I needed to allow me to see all of those experiences with Whitesnake and Frank and all that stuff, as a great passing educational experience that was part of my early days.
Looking back on the 80´s and the music industry being so different today, was it easier back then or is it just the same?
SV: Well, it´s relevant. It´s according to what you´re trying to sell and how you´re trying to sell it. Back in the 80´s things were really easy for me because people were handing me bricks of gold on a silver platter. As an independent musician it was really easy for me because there were record companies and people that I worked with that I trusted and I had a great run. My solo music sold really well and having said all that, I feel that right now is probably the best time in history for an independent musician that has a strong confidence of what they wanna do. In no other time in history was it possible to make your work available to the world with a few clicks and a savvy musician today who has the goods, and there needs to be a big distinction there, because you can make a record and put it up on iTunes or any digital store around the world but it might not even sell one download… you have to create a story and you have to understand how to use the technology to create that story and then it´s much easier. Back in the 80´s it was much, much harder because you needed the support of a lot of people who had big muscles. You don´t need that as much now, but I never had it hard. It was never difficult for me.
Sweden then? Any plans at all of playing over here in Scandinavia?
SV: You bet! As a matter of fact, if you wait I´ll get my tour schedule up. These dates will be announced shortly. I´ll be in Malmö on November 24th, Stockholm on the 25th and Gothenburg on the 26th.
SV: With a show that´ll knock your dick in the dirt. (laughs)
Looking forward to it.
SV: Yeah, it´s gonna be a fantastic show. I have a harp player in the band and she play a strap on harp and you´ll just have to see it to believe it. I also have Beverly McClellan opening the show for me and actually coming out and singing “John the Revelator”. It´s gonna be a fantastic show!
A final thing. Any chance of bringing along that heart shaped guitar with like three necks on it?
SV: (laughs) No, I won´t have that. Originally it just started out as a novelty kinda instrument to have for a video, but when I recorded “The ultra zone” I used it to write a song where I actually utilized all the necks and that became a piece of music called “Fever dream”. It´s actually a very creative and interesting piece, but to carry that thing around is not on the radar right now. Maybe one day. I gave them away, you know. I don´t have them anymore. One of them I sold to the Hardrock Café for charity and with one I did this lottery for charity and actually a kid from Sweden won it. He has that heart shaped guitar hanging on his bedroom wall some place in Sweden. I do have one left and one of these days I´ll pull it out and I think it would be a kick for some people.
Absolutely! Thanks so much and great talking to you Steve and I hope I get to see you and sit down with you when you hit Stockholm in November.
SV: That sounds great man!