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Kerby's Exclusive Interview With Axe Master Steve Vai -- Part II

By Jeff Kerby, Contributor
Monday, March 29, 2004 @ 1:33 AM

ďCuttiní HeadsĒ Part 2 of Ker

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Please click HERE for Part I of Kerbyís interview with Steve Vai.

Steve Vai has to make music.

There are just those people who are bestowed with a particular drive to do what they do and are powerless to alter their situation. Vai is a guitar player, and if fortunes had been different and he had to take a day job as a plumber, heíd still be a plumber with a built in desire to play guitar. This point remains true mostly because motivation like that isnít a part time propositionóinstead, itís an all-encompassing full time agenda that goes beyond an itinerary and progresses to the point where it actually becomes the individual. Thatís the way it is with great ones. Some of the equation is always talent, but the overlooked part mostly concerns the amount of time needed to become someone who is able to take the stage to the screams of a frenzied crowd and have that adoration last for longer than a show or two that may occur during the span of a year or three or whatever the normal life expectancy of a recording artist is. Steve Vai has persevered throughout his career mostly for no other reason than because he has to be a guitarist. There simply are no other options.

Only the specifics of how he will chose to present his work are variable. Sometimes he opts to work within the confines of a band while the majority of the time he is the primary force behind what is happening. Whether or not fans were initially attracted to him because of his affiliation with Whitesnake or DLR, it remains undeniable that a high percentage of the converted have chosen to stay for the duration. This is true even though Vai has traditionally received minimal radio support for his artistic endeavors. If the absence of his music from the airwaves ultimately appears to be a point of fact that he isnít exactly thrilled with, Vai is still nevertheless able to present himself as an individual who is comfortable with the career he has forged for himself throughout the years. Face it, fans of the guitar tend to be of a much different breed anyway, and for many, Steve Vai is the pied piper supplying the melodies for which they love to follow.

KNAC.COM: For someone to say that the main reason for guys who get into this business is to get chicks and get laid just isnít true then?
VAI: Well, it might be for some people.

KNAC.COM: But for another musician to say that this is true for artists across the board, itís just plain inaccurate?
VAI: Thatís one of the most fucking inane, idiotic, meathead things Iíve ever heard in my life, and I really resent when people say it.

KNAC.COM: Kid Rock happens to be one of them. He says it every time he gets a chance.
VAI: Itís still the stupidest thing Iíve ever heard. If itís true for him, then itís true for him. Itís a terrible way to be though. I donít give a shit--whatever, it wasnít true for me. I liked having sex like anyone else. You know, to me the fascination of being able to stand on a stage playing an instrument and put those notes out there and being able to feel the expression, that was the reason to do this. You can just feel it coming out of your head right into your fingers and have it move you. You know, that was the emphasis for meóto be a legendary guitar player. It wasnít to get a fucking blowjob.

KNAC.COM: How weird is it when you look out into the crowd at a G3 show and see possibly more air guitars than have been present at any other single time or place in history? What does that do for you when you see all these guys out there playing these imaginary axes?
VAI: Oh, itís fun. Itís real. I mean, you look out and see people. The guitar is really a great instrument. Everybody should play it. Every body should be able to play it and just whack out a song. When youíre onstage playing the guitar and everybody is into it and some are pantomiming it, itís like youíre helping them live out a momentary fantasy. Itís fun. Itís really great.

KNAC.COM: Do you think the connection between you and your fans is different because your primary mode of expression is the guitar?
VAI: Well, yesóabsolutely. If Iím playing a very aggressive song, my face gets tense and clenched and I hit the guitar very hard. Iím feeling a lot of energy and aggression. Itís like my throat gets sore because Iím going, ďGrrr!Ē When Iím talking to people, Iím not going, ďHOW ARE YOU DOING, MAN?Ē Then, there are times that Iím tremendously tender and sensitive on the instrument. There are people who see that side of me personally too.

KNAC.COM: I guess I can understand the whole air guitar thing, but what about the people who mimic the facial expressions, too?
VAI: There are people doing that on the DVD! Hey man, whatever it takes.

KNAC.COM: Were the outtakes really fun for you to make?
VAI: Well, yeah. I wasnít really involved. I mean, I gave out certain pointers, and I prepped people. There were a couple of skits that I set up, but for the most part, I just let them go for it. Everybody just sent in their videosóI looked at miles of videos and picked a couple of things that I thought were funny.

KNAC.COM: So if somebody had to encapsulate the vibe on this DVD, would it be that Steve Vai has a great life?
VAI: Well, I try to be objective here, but I do believe in my heart of hearts that I am a very centered, happy person. Thatís true even if my pop music is never going to be as right on as Elton John, you know, so let him do it. Heís great at it, itís beautiful and people love it.

KNAC.COM: But if itís not true for you personally, or itís something you arenít into, then why do it?
VAI: Yeah, exactly! Thatís why I think itís so funny when I hear people say, ďOh, that guy sold out and made pop music.Ē Then they think, ďI could do this pop music for awhile and sell out and make money with that.Ē Well guess what? Itís much harder than that. You have to be yourself. Itís just that most people donít know how to find themselves.

KNAC.COM: In popular music, your burn out factor is also much quicker than in hard rock where the artists typically have audiences that gradually grow but tend to remain more loyal.
VAI: Yeah, it just goes ďpoofĒ sometimes.

KNAC.COM: Right, yet you are lucky enough to have a crowd that isnít like that.
VAI: Well, my crowd isnít like that but the crowd for an established pop artist isnít always like that either. I mean, people are always going to be buying tickets to Celine Dion and Mariah Carey just like people are always going to be buying tickets to Elton John, Madonna and Prince. Thatís because these people are historical pop artists that make great interesting, creative, cool, evolving music through time. They arenít Debbie Gibson or Tiffany or a lot of these acts that are just flavors of the month. That kind of thing happens in every genre. In the genre of left of center alien type guitar playing with huge, thick arrangementsókooky stuffóI just happen to fit that mold. People who like that stuff know to buy my records and be stimulated. Thatís never going to change.

KNAC.COM: Did you see a lot of similarities between yourself and the other guitar players on the G3 tour? Youíre all individuals obviously, but can you see a common brotherhood or thread or something that would tie you guys together?
VAI: Well, I think that we mostly possess a drive to do something and pursue it in order to get to a certain place. When I look at Joe Satriani and Yngwie [Malmsteen] and other people that Iíve toured with like Eric JohnsonÖ Each one of them possess something unique like a gift. That is rare among guitar players. I think thatís what makes them stand out.

KNAC.COM: Do you see anything more with regard to everyday personalities and the way they deal with people on a regular basis?
VAI: Usually people who have established themselves have done so through their own vision and tenacity to make real in the world their vision. So in order to be able to do that, you have to have a very clear-cut idea of your vision, and you have to have the balls to do it. You have to have confidence. Thatís something all of these guys have. Anybody thatís capable of delivering something that starts out as a unique vision in their head has to have the confidence because they know what theyíre going to do. Thereís just no choice in the matter, and thereís nothing thatís going to stop them. I see that in the way Joe plays, and I see that in his life in certain things. I see that with Yngwie. I see that with anybody who has an artistic vision. That confidence can manifest itself in different ways. It doesnít necessarily mean theyíre stable people. Matter of fact, itís usually the opposite. You got these people who can hardly function in normal life.

KNAC.COM: Do you find that to be the case a lot of the time with people you work with?
VAI: No, not with the people I usually deal with, but there are some people I know that are so brilliant, and their personal lives are just a disaster. Theyíre so absolutely deep and rich with musical talent and artistic overviews and insight that itís staggering. You can only know that it takes a mad type of a life to produce this kind of work and you feel sorry for these people, but the universe and its infinite wisdom just sees fit to infest the planet with the right type of people to add to the color of it. Fortunately, sometimes these artistic savants have to pay a price.

KNAC.COM: Do you think that true musicians would always be there trying to contribute to their art even if you stripped away the money, the records and the women?
VAI: Well, I canít say that for sure because I donít know the compelling nature of some artists, but I can tell you this: if youíre a great artist, youíre compelled by something thatís stronger than your ability to stop yourself. You know what Iím saying?

KNAC.COM: Right.
VAI: Itís like if you were that guyóif you were Tom Waites and you were stranded on a desert island and you didnít have any instruments or anything like that, I think youíd find other ways to express your unique, artistic vision. It would be inherent in every single thing you did and a lot of times -- people have that -- but it gets diluted by society and their own ability to identify with it. I say that all the time. We all identify with our own uniqueness, but it takes a lot of courage to do it because you gotta go against the grain against all the things considered orthodox and normal and all that shit, but then again, youíre putting your balls on the chopping block. Some people have zero choice. You think Kurt Cobain could have done anything but just what he did? Not a chance. He was just what he was, and there was nothing that was going to stop him. I see that in all great artists.

KNAC.COM: It does seem as though the whole process of recording is destined to grind the musician down whether itís supposed to or not. That makes what the true individuals do so remarkable.
VAI: Some people act very wise and some people act like adults. The thing is, your intellect can have nothing to do with that. You can be a dummyóyou can be dumb and not very intelligent and still have the maturity of a very spiritually evolved person. The two do not walk hand in hand, and thatís what brings the real dilemma thatís true regardless of what field youíre working in or what it is youíre doing. The travesty is when you get a beautiful piece of work, and you get some disgruntled journalist who hasnít really matured past the age of ten, but has the intellect of a person who has a command of the language unlike any other, and they wield their frustrations and their immaturity into these intense, powerful statements because of their ability to comprehend a language and get it across. When youíre a simple artist that really poured your heart out and felt what you created was a real representation of who you are and what you are, and youíre reading all this intense shit about yourself from this person that is exercising their intellect and vocabulary with the emotional stability of a ten year oldÖ

KNAC.COM: Do you think that is always the case with the writer? That they are grandstanding and using the insults to make themselves look good?
VAI: Well, thatís the cowardly nature of these people, but Iím not saying theyíre all like that. Iím just saying itís like that in my field. Did you ever have to go to an immigration attorney or a divorce attorney? I never had to deal with that, thank God, but every time I have to visit one of these people, theyíre just most of them like these blood sucking leeches that have no intensions to stop arguing because thatís how they make their money. Weíre all prey to it. Like I was saying though, I also believe there are some very inspired people in any field whether itís law or journalism or music.

KNAC.COM: Even with you feeling that way about reviews, can you really keep yourself from reading them?
VAI: Oh, I donít. I never read any of my press.

KNAC.COM: So, would you say you keep as much of a distance as possible?
VAI: I want to say this in all due respect to the journalistic field, but Iím the kind of artist who doesnít get MTV. I donít have MTV to support me or Spin magazine or Rolling Stone or VH-1 or any of these things. I donít even have radio. I can literally count on one crippled hand the amount of time Iíve heard my music on the radio. Iím okay with all of it. As a matter of fact, Iím ecstatic about all of it. But having said that, the only way my fans really know that I have something out there is by doing an interview or posting it on the web or going out on tour. Mostly, I donít like doing interviews, but this one is fun and interesting basically because you seem generally interested. Sometimes itís pure agony though, and if I never have to do another interview, Iíd be perfectly happy.

KNAC.COM: Yeah, I can understand thatóespecially in cases where the person youíre talking to has absolutely no idea who you are or what your history is, and yet they expect you to rehash your whole life story in twenty minutes.
VAI: There was this one time where I went into a radio station where they kept calling me Satriani. I also brought my records only to find out that they werenít allowed to play my music. I was like, ďIím getting the fuck out of here.Ē

KNAC.COM: It probably made you wonder why you were brought there in the first place.
VAI: Well, it did. Why would they want me? Iím not that kind of figure they would want on the radio. I donít know. Sometimes radio is cool though like if the DJ happens to just be a music lover. It tends to just make things more fun.

KNAC.COM: Most of the time they either have to play songs from a specific list or itís some kind of morning show or whatever.
VAI: You know, the person can even promote themselves as long as they play good music.

KNAC.COM: You just donít want it to get overshadowed though, right?
VAI: Well, the radioís changing so much with the airwaves being bought up by Clear Channel or whatever and having central programming in one area. Then all the play lists just get sent to all their stations because thatís where the labels bought into, and itís just pathetic. Iím sorry to say it. I donít care if you cut that out of the interview or not, but thatís what the reality is. I have nothing to worry about though because I have career sales of fifteen million records under my belt, and I could literally count on one hand the amount of times Iíve heard my music personally on the radio.

KNAC.COM: Doesnít it make it that much more of a thrill though for you to know that the fans are actually seeking out your music in spite of this?
VAI: It really is. I mean, Iím blessed and fortunate. Iím known as an eclectic guitar player. People love the guitar from here to Venus. They just adore this instrument. I mean, I go on tour all over the world and there are American pop stars who can sell out the Forum here but who couldnít sell tickets in many of the places I play. Itís a whole portion of the world that they canít really tour. My last European tour took me to Bulgaria, Romania, Greece, Spain and Italy. Iíve also played in Slovenia, Turkey, Australia, Taiwan, Hong Kong and South America. Iíve headlined all these places, and I was playing between 2,500 and 5,000 seats a night. Thatís because people just love the guitar. They come out to see what this weird guy is going to do on the instrument. Thatís a real wonderful thing for somebody. I mean, itís an honor and an incredible opportunity. As much as it sounds like Iím whining about radio, I listen to the radio, but I donít need it, and I am very grateful for that because most artists do.

KNAC.COM: Those people also have to be more closely tied into the industry in order to make it work.
VAI: Well, Iíd have to reinvent myself and make a record thatís accessible to radio. Although I believe my music is appropriate for the radio, you know, itís not going to be played. Itís just a different breed and brand than the kind of thing that I do. If I was ever going to have my music on the radio, it would have to be on my terms, but who cares about my terms? Not one single radio station. Thatís alright. It doesnít mean I donít make good music. Iím sorryóthere, I said it.

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