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Kerby's Exclusive Interview With Guitarist Extrordinaire Steve Vai

By Jeff Kerby, Contributor
Sunday, February 22, 2004 @ 10:35 PM

ďCuttiní HeadsĒ -- Part 1 of K

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Steve Vai is a guitar virtuoso.

Basically, he is one of a select group of individuals blessed with the ability to produce singular sounds of which even the most ardent six-string enthusiasts would be reluctant to dream. It is also an indisputable fact that he is as proficient as anyone currently playing the instrument--at least on a technical level. Vaiís career from his involvement with Frank Zappa all the way up to his recent participation on G3 has only served to solidify his legend with fans all over the world.

That being said, guitarists who are affiliated in any way with traditional Ď80s-style rock are bound to have their detractors regardless of the level of talent they possess. The compulsion tends to be for many listeners to go, ďYeah, yeah, the guy plays fast, but what about the songs?Ē Mainstream publications typically laud musicians like Jack White and Joan Jett while ignoring the ability of such guitarists as Zakk Wylde and Joe Satriani. In a case where garage rock currently reigns and minimalism is considered profound, solos have been deemed passť and those who continue to play them run the risk of getting dismissed as irrelevant. For a guy who was a member of David Lee Rothís band as well as the Slip of the Tongue version of Whitesnake, this stigma can carry a great deal of unwanted weight that serves no other purpose than to fuel preconceived notions about a musician who simply plied his craft in a particular genre during a time period that has since become a punch line for many.

Although time has forgotten the vast majority of those who took the stage with big hair and leopard print spandex, Steve Vai has nonetheless maintained his creative sensibilities and has continued to be a viable commodity in rock music. The stages might not be as big as they were when he shared the spotlight with David Lee Roth or David Coverdale, but he has still managed to sell albums and tour worldwide in front of a fan base as loyal as any in rock. Vaiís new DVD entitled Steve Vai Live at the Astoria, London showcases his trademark work on the guitar while also featuring such notables as Tony MacAlpine and bassist extraordinaire, Billy Sheehan. While Vai doesnít consider this work to be in any way a retrospective, it does give the viewer a glimpse of what used to be and quite possibly, what is yet to come.

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KNAC.COM: What do you say to people who listen to guitarists like Joe Satriani, Yngwie Malmsteen or even yourself who acknowledge that the playing is great technically, but that it appears to be lacking soul or emotion?
VAI: Well, I donít waste my time trying to convert them. The bottom line is, you get out of music what you put into it. People can find emotional value in various forms of music. People are capable of listening to a Britney Spears song and finding great emotional value. Itís justifiable to them because thatís what they respond to at that point. Other people may also listen to something a little more challenging and find that itís what is valuable to them. In cases like this, I donít tell people that theyíre right or wrong about anything. Some people think Iím way too technical with my playingóthatís their right. So what? Some other people think my music is some of the most intense and deep stuff theyíve ever heard--for them, that is true. The bottom line is: it doesnít matter. I used to go off into these tantrums waxing on and on about it, but being technically knowledgeable doesnít mean you arenít a musician. Look at Mozart, Bach and Beethovenóall these guys had all this technical information and the music was still very emotional. Itís just bullshit, and I donít care about it anymore.

"I immediately gravitate towards deep spiritual and emotional things, but then again, I also have all this technical ability in my fingers. My brain sort of mixes these things together so I get my music."
KNAC.COM: What do you hear when you hear a great guitarist? How do you know when youíve heard something special?
VAI: Well, like I say, we all respond to different things. Things that I respond to and listen for when I hear music tends to involve the value of melody, which is very important. I also like eclectic arrangements, but I never mind a pop song here and there either if itís just a good song. The only thing that unnerves me is just all of the recycled pantomiming of other peopleís genius that is going on right now. Unfortunately, thatís mainly about 99% of the shit thatís being played on the radio. Thatís just my opinionówhich means absolutely nothing.

KNAC.COM: When you compose, what is it that you hear inside your head? Do you consider it more like a feeling that comes through the creative process or is it something more cerebral?
VAI: I think that when we enter the creative element, we gravitate towards the things that interest us. I think some people, when they go to write a song or create a piece of art, they might write a song about love, a fast car, money, fame or a dog. I donít know. Itís everything. I canít help myself but to gravitate towards things that I find that are most important in my life, which is trying to pursue a spiritual balance. To me, thatís just important. I immediately gravitate towards deep spiritual and emotional things, but then again, I also have all this technical ability in my fingers. My brain sort of mixes these things together so I get my music. Itís part of very complicated mechanical stuff that I use at my disposal that I use for my will to express my inner feeling. I could write complex music for the sake of writing complex music, but after awhile, it just starts to sound like exercise. Thereís a certain thing that you feel when youíre getting it. You know what I mean? Youíve done it. You know, and we all do it. Thatís what I look for. If I have to get that by using it, then so be it. Itís fine. Thatís all good.

KNAC.COM: How close of a union between the emotional and the technically superior playing do you think you got on the DVD? How much is it a representation of what youíve done up to this point?
VAI: That DVD is just a snapshot of that time of my life and that band. The thing is, when I put a show together, Iím trying to do something that stimulates me and fulfills the desires that I have when I go see a band. The thing I like to see most when I go to a performance is that I want to be entertained. I want to see amazing musicianship. I want to hear great melody. I want to hear cool songsócool interesting songs. I want to hear some simple stuff and very challenging stuff too. I donít want to hear complex music just for the sake of someone being able to do it. I also want to see a great show. I want to see a great drum solo. I want to see some great guitar work, ya know? Iím capable of that cause Iím a player from way back when. I wanted to be entertaining on this DVD on a variety of levels, and when I look at it, I realize that I brushed on some unique moments that Iíve never seen. I get wood for it. Thatís what I live foróI like to get woodóand some of it is, you know, okay.

KNAC.COM: Do you think that after the great metal backlash that bands went too far the other way with regard to their delivery? Did groups get a little too boring?
VAI: Well, trend swings can be kinda extreme. The underground can get pretty extreme. I pretty much stand behind what happened in the Ď80s though. I think there were some great players and some great music, and then there was also a lot of crap. I think that holds true in every genre. When the reaper came out and chopped all the heads off those nice, pretty hairdos and Kurt Cobain changed the world, there were a lot of bands that sprung out of that movement that were pantomiming crap. I donít want to come off as being too harsh though because everybody canít be Kurt Cobain. What ended up happening is that you get this pool of people who all have some kind of musical insight or ability, and they hear stuff that stimulates them, but they donít have the originality to go out and do something on their own. Thatís okay, man, not everybody has that insight. Many are just stimulated by something like what Kurt did, and theyíll sort of do it and indirectly plagiarize elements of that music, and occasionally youíll get great songs. Thatís why the Spin Doctors sold two million records and then just fell to pieces. Itís like that with almost every band that comes along. Itís rare to find a band thatís unique enough to deliver something where they donít care whether they sell ten million records or one. Like Pearl Jamóin my opinion, they were such a great band, and they blew it. They were like Soundgarden in that respect. They basically blew it when they broke up and let all that stupid shit get in the way of the music, but thatís just my opinion.

KNAC.COM: Who is out there right now who you think delivers the goods then?
VAI: Tom Waits, Frank Zappa, Trent Reznor, David Bowieó

KNAC.COM: The Spin Doctorsó
VAI: No Spin Doctors. Not Creed either, although I really like some things about those bands. Have you listened to Korn?

"When the reaper came out and chopped all the heads off those nice, pretty hairdos and Kurt Cobain changed the world, there were a lot of bands that sprung out of that movement that were pantomiming crap."
VAI: That stuff is intense. Jonathan Davis is brilliant--the way that heís capable of putting those melodies with the lyrics. He may be a bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy though because when you write stuff like that, you become what you write. His ability to choose melodies is supreme, and that band creates something that no one else can do. Thatís saying a lot. It really is. I canít hear their influences.

KNAC.COM: That makes is good and original?
VAI: Yeah, itís unique and itís rare. Thatís why every record is interesting and cool.

KNAC.COM: You are in a position where you donít have to make every album sound the same either, do you? It seems as though your fan base seems perfectly willing to go along with you in any direction you choose to take them.
VAI: I fall to my knees every day and thank my lucky stars for that. The only way I can equate it is that Iíve become an intense Tom Waits fan. When I first heard Mule Variations, it was the first time I had ever really listened to his music. Within a year, I had every one of his records. I memorized every one of his songsónot that I could play them, but I knew them. Every record was just so diverse and different. Some of them I liked more than others, but the amazing thing is that it came from this one guy and his vision was being represented in its entirety in a particular project. You basically just end up loving anything guys like that do because, itís not even so much the music, but itís the focused artistic vision that comes through. Itís the same thing with a guy like Frank Zappa or any of the great ones. Tom Waits is just so different because everything is so true and unique. Iíll buy Nine Inch Nail records Ďtil Iím blue in the face, and theyíll all be the same, but theyíll also all be great. Every Tom Waits record is almost completely different with all of the material coming from just this one guy. Basically whatever he does, Iím going to love it.

KNAC.COM: What about a guy like Neil Young?
VAI: I was just about to say Neil Young, but you see, I didnít get into him until after all that controversy about those weird records. I just think I wouldnít have stood for it. You know, because after all, that is when I got into music. I ended up loving his early music so much, and then when I listened to that other stuff, I appreciated it, but it didnít sound authentic to me. Iím all for creating if what youíre creating is natural, cool and artistic.

KNAC.COM: But not something created just for the sake of being cool and artistic.
VAI: Yeah, because it ends up being really obvious when thatís the case. Iím not saying thatís the way it is with Neil though because he is very artistic, but you can see when there are people who are good at one thing and then they branch out and do things that are really watery and uninspired. Itís just like they are trying too hard to step outside themselves.

KNAC.COM: Well, when you create music with your guitar and you hear a melody that you think should be set to words, is it your voice that you hear?
VAI: Well, it depends on what Iím doing--sometimes yes and sometimes no. Thereís a time though when that has to be determined. It might make a difference in what I do. Is someone going to sing it like this, or am I going to sing it? That kind of thing.

KNAC.COM: How far into a song do you know whether itís going to be you who sings it or not?
VAI: Usually before I record itóbefore I write it even.

KNAC.COM: Really?
VAI: Yeah. When I sit down to write a song, I have a concept. Itís going to be me, or it isnít going to be me. I donít have a problem with not singing a song. As a matter of fact, I prefer not to sing. I enjoy doing it, but it adds another complexity to the thing. Itís pretty complicated and boring, but I got to tell you, when you tour youíve got to really be careful about getting enough rest and stuff. One false move with the air conditioner, and there goes your show.

KNAC.COM: Plus, there has to be a different level of difficulty between singing and playing guitar on the material you write versus playing guitar and singing in a top 40 band.
VAI: Yeah, Iíll never play in a top 40 band. I donít have those brain muscles. If I could sing and play guitar at the same time, I might have a career.

KNAC.COM: Youíve definitely managed to stick around for a while anyway. In the movie Crossroads, did you come to any conclusion about the myth of Robert Johnson? Does the idea of selling oneís soul to the devil for increased ability seem far-fetched to you?
VAI: Yes and no. I am definitely a strong believer in metaphysics, but I just think that the mechanics of the universe are beyond our ability to really intellectualize or comprehend. By the same token, there are certain things that people do or may do on their path while desperate to be famous. They may get themselves involved in different situations that are detrimental to their health and also to their ability to express themselves. Itís really easy in this business to be single-minded and selfish. Usually, all youíre doing in those cases is building an empire of shit when you do things that way. Itís done all the time. Iíve seen it done, and Iíve seen those empires crumble. The thing is, if youíre talking about selling your soul--that in essence, is what youíre doing. Eventually you have to pay the piper--if you are being an obstacle to somebody or causing someone harm on your way to superstardom or whatever it is you think youíre doing. Thatís not just my opinion, by the way. More than half the world believes that and in the doctrine of Karma. Having said that, I donít think it is necessary to take that route in order to achieve your goals. You could do it with dignity and all these things that help people along the way because thereís plenty to go around.

KNAC.COM: But thatís not the shorter route. Isnít that why people donít take it?
VAI: I donít think thatís necessarily true. It just depends on the situation. I still think you can catapult to the top without compromising yourself. Look at the people who started Ebay. They started by trading Pez dispensers in the Bay Area. Then, a few years later the business involves billions of dollars. They did it honestly and with integrity. They are beautiful people who claim to keep less than 1% of their fortune while giving the rest away. That may be the quickest ascension Iíve seen. The same thing happens in music. You have that gift and youíre just there. It can also be the result of great sacrifice. Iíve made quite a few throughout my life in order to be the player that I am now. The thing is, if you love it, you donít even realize youíre making a sacrifice.

KNAC.COM: Just because of the love involved?
VAI: Yeah, when youíre obsessed with something, you donít miss other things. As a matter of fact, when I was growing up, whenever I wasnít playing my guitar, I was in pain. Anything I had to do that wasnít directly music related was a distraction.

KNAC.COM: So at school youíre daydreamingÖ
VAI: Yeah! Having a girlfriendówell, I was just a terrible boyfriend. I never wanted to talk to them on the phone or anything. I just wanted to get laid occasionally. You know, even getting laid became a distraction to playing the guitar. You know, I could sit down and play, play, play, and if Iím suddenly overcome by the urge to have sex, I could rub one out in a minuteóthat was enough... Sometimes itís a curse in a way too, though.

(Stayed tuned for Part 2!)

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