Chicago Music Magazine phone interview with Guitar Legend Mr. Steve Vai
While many musicians fit easily into a single category, Steve Vai’s unique musical vision remains unclassifiable. After more than 20 years, Vai continues to use unbridled guitar virtuosity and soulful artistry to explore the spectrum of human emotion. Chicago Music Magazine President Shawn Kellner recently spoke with Steve on the phone about his new record "The Story of Light" which came out August 14th 2012, his upcoming Chicago show at The House of Blues, a special look back at Steve's first time playing in Chicago with Frank Zappa in 1980, and more.
Chicago Music Magazine (Shawn Kellner):Hows it going today Steve?
Steve Vai: Very good, I'm in sunny southern California.
CMM: Very cool. Were in "Nice and Hot" Chicago, IL
CMM: You have this fantastic brand new record "The Story of Light". What went into writing this particular record?
SV: Well this record is part of a big concept theory I put together. Its the 2nd installment of "The Real Illusions Trilogy". The idea is: I had this story bouncing around and It had a big picture to it. I thought "What can I do that's a little different that conventional concept records?" I always like to take a more esoteric swing on things. So I thought "Why don't you break the story up into little pieces and represent those pieces and the personalities in the story, in the songs. Loosely represent them. Then distribute those songs not in a necessary order that the story unfolds in, just as a record with music on it and give little hints here and there to the story line. Then at the end of it, take the 3 records and glue them together in the right order and put some vocals on the melody songs to actually create a rock fable type of thing. Almost like a rock Opera. I hate the word opera but I guess it could paint the right picture.
CMM: Absolutely, well historically that has worked well for allot of different people. With the range of emotions that are pulled from in your music, I think that is quite an interesting and great way to approach a release. Especially with the current changes in the music business.
SV: Yes, it is fun. If a person is listening to the music and is not interested in following the esoteric story, they don't have too. It doesn't demand that you have to understand the story too. You can simply appreciate the music itself.
CMM:Now with the release of a record normally comes a tour to support and promote it. You have historically toured with a bunch of different people over the years in your band. What went into picking the specific people you decided to tour with in your band on this coming tour in support of your new record.
SV: Well I always like to bring a different kind of dimension to the show. When I put a show together, I think about the things that I like to see in a show. What I like personally when I go to a show is to see the musicians that I respect, hear them play great. Hear them play things like the record, maybe a little different at times. I want to be surprised by things that are unexpected. I want to see a show. You know, all these things. I want the lights to be cool and the music to be stimulating and uplifting. When I leave a concert, I want to feel very uplifted, encouraged, and inspired. So that is how I try to build my show and as far as the musicians go, I'm using Jeremy Colson on drums who I have used for many years. Dave Liter on guitar. He has been in the band for like 13 years. These are solid guys. I wanted to do something different than any of my last bands. My last band had 2 violin players and it worked out really well. I thought what can I do that would be different this time. I thought what if I put together a horn section. Like, go out with 8 horns or something and then go and create a percussion section. So this time, I went online and I started searching and I came across this really incredible harp player. Her name is Debra Henson Connect. She is referred to as "The Hip Harppest". She has a strap on harp. We went through all these effects. She bends notes and she's got this blues flavor but she can play all this different stuff. Immediately, I knew that it would work. Frankly, I didn't know it was going to work as well as it is turning out. We just finished 3 weeks of rehearsal and its just really special.
CMM: Wow that's really cool. You have a pretty strong history of music transcription in your career. Is writing and transcribing the harp parts something you handled personally or is that something that you worked with her on? </strong>
SV: Well a harp is a peculiar instrument. There are different kind of harps. There are orchestral harps with pedals. When you push one of the pedals, press or releasing the pedal changes the tuning of the harp. So you have to understand the mechanics of a harp before you can dish out parts. You can't just dish out anything. They have to be able to make moves to change notes. Then there are harps that are lever harps. They have levers that change the tunings. You can only change things a half step. The harp she uses is a lever harp tuned to A flat. She has to have time to change notes if I write something that changes key or something. You have to understand all this. Some of this stuff was written specifically for her because she does read music. Harpists don't usually read music. They can read, but they have to learn it because there are more mechanics involved in playing the harp than any other instrument in the world. So I had to work with her. Whenever I compose for the harp, you have to kind of get with the harp player because they all approach the instrument differently. They approach pedaling differently. They approach levering differently. They approach their hand over hand differently. I really enjoy that. I enjoy the mechanics of how an instrumentalists plays their instrument. The end result is the sound of a harp which is perhaps the most beautiful ethereal instrument in the world. It adds such an interesting dimension to the band.
CMM: We recently reached out to some of our Facebook subscribers and got some fan questions for you.
CMM: Where did you meet Eric Sardinas and how did he come to record on your record label?
SV: (Laughs) A friend of mine kept telling me about this guy who performs at this little restaurant so to speak in the valley and that I should go see him. I had just started my label at the time. My partner and I went down to see Eric perform and I was completely and utterly blown away. I was like "Why isn't this guy making records and on tour?" So I had a conversation with him and he was actually signed to a label that released some records and he wasn't really happy with the way that it was done and I wooed him a bit. Signed him to favored nations but I also took him on tour for like 3 tours. We became very good friends. Hung out allot. Did allot of stuff together. Traveled around the world and playing together. He is a fun guy. He's funny and very talented. He is very artistic and rock and roll to the core. That's the kind of guy I wanted on the label.
CMM: Was the original release of "Flexible" really limited? and What was the decision making process in changing the cover?
SV: Well it wasn't limited at all. I was intent on selling as many copies as I could. You gotta understand when I recorded flexible it was completely home spun. I was experimenting with the recording process. I didn't really know much about it. I had some gear. Frank Zappa was loaning me gear. I was recording with Frank and learning. I actually recorded flexible and trashed the whole thing because I just didn't like how it sounded. My approach at the time was very willie nillie. It was like "Ok, here is a guitar part. Ya, that's good enough, Ok next part." I listened back and things didn't groove. They were out of sync, they were out of tune. Then I started working with Frank. The way it was before that it was very, very, amateur. Then working with Frank I was like "Holy Macaral, you really gotta be in tune." This is what it means to lock in with the drummer. You have to get from one part to another and make it sound like music. So I scraped the record and started over. After I recorded it, I wanted to get it release so I started educating educating and understanding the music business. I wasn't desperate and I didn't panic. I never relied on anybody. I never felt like "If I don't get a record deal my career is over." I didn't really care. With a record like flexible. It was almost like a secret. I did it for fun. So my friends could have something to laugh at. I was offered one record deal and it helped me to understand the infrastructure of the conventional record label deal and the record business. I thought "This is bullshit" There is no way I'm going to sign this. I thought what is the next step. Then I didn't a little research and discovered that distribution was it. I then went directly to a distributor and I made infinitely more money and was infinitely more successful than if I would have given it to a label. I didn't have an art department and I didn't have any artistic talent in that field. I had a guy do a cover and I just thought "Ok, this is good enough". I had that old approach. It was awful so I had it redone, and it was still awful. So I had it redone again. Some people believe that it is even more awful.
CMM: It defiantly is fun to look back on stuff like that.
CMM: I've heard allot about you being an avid bee keeper and I was wondering if you can attribute Bee Keeping to being in the music business. "You work tirelessly to hone your craft and create your product while doing everything you can not to get stung."
SV: That's it! You gotta stay really focused or your going to get the shit stung out of ya. (Laughs)
CMM: How did you get into bee keeping?</strong>
SV: My wife and I were living in Hollywood. We had 2 kids. I didn't want to raise our kids in Hollywood so we moved out to the Valley. Found this property that was 2 acres and was completely dilapidated. The guy who owned it had left it vacant for 10 years. There were no plants. There were trees but everything was dead. I wanted to plant these fruit trees and my wife wanted a garden so I did a little bit of research and discovered that Honey Bees are a great way to pollinate. I thought "Well there's a pretty cool hobby". Its so easy. Keeping bees is really easy. Its very Zen to go into the hive. You create this connection with the bees. Its one of the few things that I do where no ones bothering me, obviously(laughs). My mind is just with nature. My whole focus is with nature. Its a really liberating moment. The bees don't take allot of work. They are really great creatures. They are fascinating creatures. They make honey. How cool is that? My best honey harvest yielded 512 pounds of honey.
SV: I could load a boat with that stuff (laughs)
CMM: You've actually turned bee keeping into a philanthropic endeavor donating some money from the sale of the honey to a charity?
SV: Yes, its actually a side thing I do. I started a charity called the Make A Noise Foundation. I started it specifically for when I sell gear (that I got for free, I get allot of gear for free that people want me to try out.) I get prototype after prototype. I have this huge backlog of gear. The companies don't want it back. I can't sell it for profit because it was given to me for free. Instead, I sell it and I give all the money to the Make A Noise Foundation. One of the other ways that we raise money is you can buy a bottle of my fire garden honey.
CMM: The last few questions I have for you Steve are specifically about Chicago. Since we are a publication based in Chicago we love to ask the people we get to talk to about their personal connection to Chicago.
CMM: With the amount of touring you've done over the years, you have been to our fine city quite a few times. Do you have any specific memories of times you have come through Chicago?
SV: Many, I love Chicago. It is a clean, beautiful, cultural city. The weather keeps it real. I remember on my first tour with Frank (Zappa) we went to this drag club. These drag queens put on these shows. I was sitting in the front and I remember I had this really terrible stiff neck. I couldn't move my head at all. For some reason, this one drag queen had taken a liking to me. You know, when your in the audience and someone on the stage keeps picking on ya. (laughs). Well this one actually got me up on stage and tried to do all these lude things. I ended up picking her up by my neck and we both folded over into the audience. I was just a 20 yr old kid. It was allot of fun. I have spent time in Chicago. We have allot of friends in Chicago. But most importantly, I have a brother Michael Vai who lives in Chicago. He is a restauranteur. So, I have been there quite a bit under the radar. Michael has this restaurant called Flower and Wine. Its like gourmet pizza and stuff like that. Its in Glen Ellyn on N. Main Street. So I have a close connected. I have been there allot.
CMM: Do you have a favorite venue you have played in Chicago?</strong>
SV: The House of Blues in Chicago, for me, is the best House of Blues in the world. Its huge, its like an opera house. I love playing House of Blues. They always take good care of the artist. There comfortable places. They are eclectic. I use to play at the Uptown Theater. I'm not sure if it is there anymore.
CMM: It actually is being renovated. It hasn't reopened yet but there are plans for it to re-open some day. Its a Jam Productions project.
SV: Ya, there is also Park West. I like that place allot too.
CMM: Having a brother that is a restauranteur, and having been to Chicago as many times as you have this should be an easy question for you. When in Chicago, If you have a choice between our world famous deep dish pizza or our world famous Chicago style hot dog, Which do you choose? </strong>
SV: I would eat the pizza for sure because I am a vegetarian.
CMM: So lets go out on a limb and say the pizza or a Chicago style veggie dog.
SV: Oddly enough I had a Chicago style veggie dog yesterday. (laughs). I think I would still take the pizza and I would have it at my brothers place. You can't believe how good his pizza's are.
CMM: With the over saturation of the music business for so many years with artists that come in and out. Its like they have their moment and it goes away. How have you managed to stay relevant for so very long. Your always putting out new music regardless of the current climate or how trends are changing.
SV: For the most part I attribute it to good Karma. I think if you find the thing that interests you the most, the thing that effects you the most, and you stick with it, everything else will just fall into place. For me, I've never struggled a day of my life in the music business because the juice for me from day 1 has always been having a guitar in my hand. Playing notes, having an idea for a song or a riff and Not being able to do it. Then working on it and all of a sudden having it. For me, that to me has always been the greatest gift. That's always there. No one can ever take that away. If you rely on exterior circumstances your a goner. You have to make things happen for yourself. The best thing to do is to stay with the things you like the most and don't veer away from it. By me continuing to love the guitar, and me continuing to evolve as a musician, everything else came. If I raced after trends, I would sound like a trend monger. If I conformed to all the various genres, or the various trends that I've seen, I would loose my identity. I'm inspired by some of these trends however when you listen to my music you can't point your finger on "Oh this is blues, this is rap, this is dub step this is classical, ect" Its a conscious unconscious. Its just something that happens naturally . Being relevant is a relative term. I'm not a big celebrity and I like it like that. I found my audience and they found me. They are interested in what I'm going to do and what I come out with. As long as I keep doing the thing that excites me, I'm usually making them happy so they stick with it.
CMM: I agree completely. It starts with the music and raw pure talent. That's exactly what you have done throughout your career. Thank so much Mr Steve Vai for taking the time to talk to me today on the phone. Congratulations on the release of your new record "The Story Of Light". We look forward to catching you in Chicago on September 28th at House of Blues.