Steve Vai - guitarist, G3 / David Lee Roth / Frank Zappa
On the phone with David Lee Wilson - 2000
It wasn't terribly fashionable to be a rock star in the 90's let alone a "guitar god" not with all the faceless, nameless and mostly, tuneless pop bands all over the charts. With all the Van Halen's, Satriani's and Malmsteen's struggling just to stay commercially alive what the world needs for the new millennium is a real guitar hero. A hero that isn't afraid to pick up his instrument and play like it was the devil's joystick. The world needs somebody like Steve Vai and, fortunately, Vai is available. The timing is perfect too because the pendulum of rock is finally swinging back to a point were the artist is again allowed to have a face, is allowed to smile, sneer, smash or spit and, maybe, even brag a little if the talent is there to justify it. Vai is in the zone and he is all alone. Vai has already logged considerable time as a guitar deity with a plethora of artists who, quite often, found themselves overshadowed by their hired gun.
David Lee Roth, Whitesnake, Alcatrazz and Public Image Limited all tapped Vai for his fretting abilities at one time or another and made their best records as a result. Once, Vai was even recruited by none other than Mamba himself to represent the dark one in a good -vs.- evil guitar battle royal for the movie "Crossroads." With such a hefty resume it would be easy to coast on credits but that is just not Steve's style. "The Ultra Zone" is Vai's latest and most convincing dig at conventional guitar playing and is sure to have aspiring guitarists sprinting for the woodshed to try and figure it all out. Ultimately, what makes this disc so enjoyable for the listener is the fact that not a single note has been sacrificed to please anyone other than Vai himself. This is total, unapologetic artistic indulgence and the fact that it is eminently listenable is a blessed coincidence. "The Ultra Zone" can only be described as otherworldly and though it may be a bit hard for radio to swallow whole, there are a few pieces that will undoubtedly wet the lips of rock radio programmers. As always, Vai will take it as it comes and claims that if there is a hit to be had on this record it will have come as a result of the hit finding him and not he chasing the hit. What the world needs now is Steve Vai and it just so happens that he will be rolling his truckload of seven strings into venues the world over in support of "The Ultra Zone".
In a recent conversation Vai laid out what we should be expecting from the show and of a guitar god for the new millennium.
DAVID LEE: You have been keeping yourself busy eh?
STEVE VAI: Yeah, always.
K2K: I know that I have the brand new record and the "Flexable Leftovers" release and now I read about a ten CD box set!
SV: Yeah. The box is coming later. If we released the box now it would get in the way of this record so now it is slated for a release next year.
K2K: Is it going to be all solo material or will it have stuff from other bands as well?
SV: What it is going to be, basically, is a compilation of things. One of the CD's is going to be all of the music that I have written for films, all of the films that I have scored. I have got the whole "Crossroads" duel in it and stuff like that and then it has a bunch of material that never made it to film. Then there are three CDs that are archives of stuff that I have worked on with other people, like bonus tracks from Japan, a Whitesnake bonus track and stuff like that. Then there are three discs, one of them is an Alcatrazz album that I recorded with the band called "Disturbing The Peace" and then one of them is a double Alcatrazz album, live. Then one of the discs is a great discs called "Hot Chunks" and what it is, is a compilation of, you know I used to and still do, carry a DAT player around and in the old days it was a cassette player, and I would just record things that would happen like in the streets or with friends and I edit that together with a lot of mischief and funny sounds. It is not like songs and stuff it is sort of like "Lumpy Gravy." Then there is a disc in there that is eleven compositions performed on solo piano by Mike Keneely that are piano reductions of material from my past and that is a beautiful record. You know, it is for the hardcore fans. Who else is going to go and buy a ten CD box set of Steve Vai?(laughs)
K2K: (Laughs) Well, I don't know! So I suspect that we won't be hearing much from that release on the radio then?
SV: Well, maybe if it has a single in it!(laughs)
K2K: Back to this record. This, as well as all of your records, seems to have been really set around some personal observations of Steve Vai, am I way off on that?
SV: No. You are pretty much right on. Usually, my music is too personal and too intense. It goes against the grain of what popular music is but, I don't know, I am really lucky that the people that listen to my stuff know that if they buy one of my records they are going to get a certain kind of musical stimulation that they are not going to get anywhere else. I am not saying that it is better than what is gong on out there, there is a lot of pop music that I like and I wished that I could write songs like that but I am very happy that I am capable of doing what I am doing. I think that what I do is a product of my influences and a little bit of my own uniqueness. The more you get into something the easier it is to be bearing your soul.
K2K: Have you ever written a composition where you have said "Well, that is just for me because it is just way too personal?"
SV: Oh, yeah, oh yeah. From the stuff that I have released, on "FIREGARDEN" there was a song called "Brother" that was very personal and on this record there is a song called "Violent Within." I have stuff that I would never release, I just don't think that it is, you know I went through a very dark period in my life when I was much younger and I wrote some pretty dark stuff and I just don't think that it is socially redeeming so I don't think that I would want to bring it into the world. With the exception of "fuck Yourself" of course!(laughs)
K2K: You may get redemption for that song alone!(laughs)
SV: I don't know, I just hope that somebody gets a laugh out of it.
K2K: I think that you succeeded and musically it is pretty cool as well.
SV: It is not cynical.
K2K: Yeah. I have to ask you this question before I forget and we are out of time. Back when you did the Whitesnake thing I was in college and I convinced the University to produce a show with the band.
SV: No kidding?
K2K: Not at all. I ran the whole thing without the benefit of any professional people at all which made it a very long day from a production standpoint but I will always be able to say I produced a Whitesnake show so the pain was worth it for me.
SV: Was it in Detroit?
K2K: No, it was Tucson, Arizona. What I have always wanted to know is this; during the evening both you and David had, had some kind of altercation and the two of you chased me out of my office so that you could talk privately about whatever it was and I have always wondered what that was all about. Can you tell me now, if you remember the incident, what happened?
SV: Huh. Well, I don't know because David and I have never shared foul words.
K2K: Really?
SV: No, never. It was probably something that we needed to discuss about the show or something. I don't know. We always got along and he was always a gentleman and all of our conversations have always ended positive. When you are a guitar player and a singer it is like a marriage, you know what I mean? You have to be able to bear the brunt of everybody's idiosyncracies and there are no secrets at sea. So, I don't know what took place. Did you hear screaming? I doubt it.
K2K: No, no there wasn't any screaming but it was a very heavy atmosphere and the crew and everybody around was very tense and, as I recall, it had something to do with the actual production of the show.
SV: I can tell you right now that I would never impose any kind of a financial burden on the show and if it meant, there was some point on that tour when we had to cut the production down a bit but that is just the way that it goes. I mean, one plus one equals two. I would never demand something that couldn't be financially justified and David was the boss.
K2K: I didn't mean to get so far off the track but I was curious and it ties in with what you are doing now in that you have a very singular vision for what you want in your music and how you want it to be portrayed. When you are in a situation with a David Coverdale or a David Lee Roth does it ever become a major situation where you bump heads?
SV: No. . . Because I know my limitations in a situation like that. Like with David Lee Roth, it was his show and he was paying the bills and it was his vision and rightfully so. He deserved it. If I made a suggestion and it was a good idea, they would go for it. If it wasn't then it would just be like, "O.K. I will just do this." If I ever felt like my parameters were squashed then I would leave the situation and that is one of the reasons that I left Dave. His vision of where he wanted to go with the music and the stage show and how the music was going to be represented was just not where I wanted to go. When I was in the job and doing it, I worked within those parameters that they set up because that was the gig. If there was ever a time that I felt like I had to do something that I didn't believe in, I just wouldn't do it but none of that ever came up. In Whitesnake it never came up. There were things that I disagreed with. I thought it was ridiculous that Adrian Vandenberg played the guitar with a violin bow. That was something that I brought up with Adrian and he had the right to do whatever he wanted. I don't know, if there was a certain part of the stage that we needed, or that I thought that we needed, I was very realistic about it. I would say, "You know, it would be very nice if we could do this, this or this." And then somebody would say "O.K. we can do this but we can't do this" and that would be fine.
K2K: Now that you have been established as a solo performer for some time and people come to see Steve Vai's name on the marquee have you ever thought of joining another band situation?
SV: Well, not really, I am really comfortable right now being in a leadership position. I love my band members and we have a great time on tour. I don't act like an arrogant egomaniac and I don't request people to do things for any kind of an ego gratification. It is the same thing, one plus one has to equal two. If the situation arose and I thought that it was a good thing, you know to join a band with some other guys, I might do it but it would really have to be spectacular and special otherwise I am very happy to be playing the small clubs and the theaters that I do. Sure, I would love to be able to bring all of my own sound and lights and create a stage show. If I had the money and if I was playing the venues, you would see a stage show that was just spectacular. I just can't do it. I just don't have the audience, I don't have the radio airplay that translates into record sales which then translates into concert tickets that would mean that I could put $100,000 a night into the production. I just can't do it.
K2K: Have you put that idea out of your mind or do you think that you may have, someday, a hit single or record that would mean all of those things were possible?
SV: I believe that, one day, Steve Vai will have a hit single somewhere but it has to be on my terms. It has to be the kind of song that I feel is very representative of how I want to create my art and how I want to be perceived. I just don't want to have a hit song that is a trendy replication of what is popular. If you listen to my record, if you listen to all of my records, there are very few things on there that would sound trendy. In my opinion, all of my music should be on the radio.(laughs) But, I know why it is not and in my opinion there is a lot of great music that should be hit songs on the radio but I know why they are not also.
K2K: The worst thing, especially for guitar players, is that when you come through town the local rock radio station may even go three songs deep but only for that day and then when you get to the gig it is like, "Where are all the people if they are playing so deep on the record?" but it was only for that day, you know what I mean? You can't expect that people have ever really heard it based on just that day of show play.
SV: Yeah. You know, it is the nature of the business and I am not complaining, trust me because when you are a pop artist you live from hit song to hit song and you better pray that there is a hit song on your record. With me, I will have a record that sells a little bit more and then I will have one that sells a little bit less but it is still within a livable domain, you know? When it is not, then I will still be making music but I may not be touring or whatever it is, I don't know. When I started playing the guitar I immediately came to the conclusion that I will never be rich and famous, I have been fortunate that I am considered famous, I guess and I am well off financially in the sense that I am not worried but I was ready to take whatever came and as long as I can play the guitar, that is what is important. I made my first record on a shoestring with an 8-track, 1 inch tape recorder in a little studio that I built and I am very proud of that record to this day. I will never not make music because it is not getting played on the radio or because I can't tour on it or because nobody is listening to it. I have to entertain myself and that is the most important thing. Obviously, I have obligations as a family man to support myself and my family so I have to work that into the equation but, like I say, I am very fortunate that there is an audience, a small yet loyal audience, for what I am doing and I want to kiss every one of their feet.(laughs)
K2K: And for everybody else, "go fuck yourself?"(laughs)
SV: (Laughs)
K2K: When you say your first record you are talking about "Flexable," right?
SV: Yeah.
K2K: What were you doing in life that enabled you to do that record? Were you delivering pizzas or what?
SV: (Laughs) I started when I was at Berkley College of Music and I was absolutely broke and starving and I didn't care, I still loved it. My parents gave me a little bit of dough for rent now and then and I had a few students but then I started working for Frank Zappa. He put me on salary for $400. A week to transcribe music and I thought that I was just fuckin' rich! Four hundred dollars a week was just like, Wow! I was, like, wealthy!(laughs) Then the whole time I was working with Frank I had no expenses really and I saved up everything and I bought this little house in Filmar and the people that moved in, one of them was my girlfriend who turned out to be my wife, everybody paid me rent! So, they paid for the house and I gave guitar lessons and that is how I made my first record. I probably made four records worth of material and I only released "Flexable" and "Flexable Leftovers" and then I joined David Lee Roth and the floodgates opened up. I have been lucky. It has always seemed to be there when I needed it but I see a lot of musicians and it is a terrible thing. A lot of them don't have an overview of their financial situation or they are just trapped in a situation where they just don't have the finds to do what they want to do. You scrimp and save with a bunch of guys to make a demo and then you are at the mercy of a record company. Then a lot of musicians get that record deal and think that their lives are complete and they have value to their existence and man let me tell you, that is where all the shit begins. That is where all the hard work begins. Having a record deal doesn't mean that your life is complete or you are even gong to be a star.
K2K: Relatively few of the thousands who get signed will ever see any money.
SV: It is relatively few of the hundreds of thousands who ever get signed.
K2K: You have been adding to that glut of musicians who are aspiring rock stars through the Make a Noise Foundation, wouldn't you say?
SV: Well, the Make a Noise Foundation was, basically, put together to help with musical education with people who are interested in that kind of thing. I mean, we are still feeling out where we are going with that but there are organizations like, Grammy's in the Schools, Save the Music, who are constructing musical education curriculums for schools. You know, music education in schools is dilapidated. Our country, the way that it studies the arts is pathetic and as the Republicans seem to get more and more stronger more and more of our musical education in the schools is being taken away. For me, that was one of the most important elements in my life as a kid. It was the thing that I looked forward to everyday and it was challenging and it exercised parts of my brain that made me feel alive. Some people feel alive when they are doing Math or English or Social Studies or any of those things. I couldn't function in those classes but music classes made me feel good about myself and made me feel smarter. It gave me a feeling of self-esteem. For a gawky adolescent who is gong through some of the worst times in his life. . . I just can't help thinking that there are just not a lot of schools in America that have that anymore. The Make a Noise Foundation was put together to collect funds and instruments for those types of programs. One of the things that we are trying to do is to create CD libraries within High Schools. I mean, did you have that in your High School?
K2K: No, nothing like it.
SV: Yeah. I think that it would be fantastic if a kid could go into the library in his school and take out a CD that they couldn't normally afford. And a great variety of CD's, not just the shit that is shoved down their throat from the radio. So, that is one of the things that we are working on.
K2K: Well, just by the simple fact of your personal ability, you have served as a mentor for hundred if not thousands of kids in a musical sense and that is a contribution just as valuable as any CD library. Come on Steve, you are the template for a rock god and with the most justification imaginable and I say that with all sincerity because I have seen so many kids who are excited by how and what you do with that guitar.
SV: Well, I guess, I mean, I don't feel like I set out to change the world or whatever but the thing is, I have been inspired by music that was very dear and special to me when I was growing up and if there is anybody out there that can get that kind of thing out of my music then, boy am I thrilled, I really am. I guess that if I was to try and set any kind of an example it would be, you know the way that I do my music is by hook or by crook, I get it done somehow. I am much more fortunate than a lot of other people but even when I didn't have those elements with me I still made the music somehow because I was driven and I loved the music and I loved the guitar and, I guess, that would be my example. If you really love the music or you really love the instrument then go for it. Create a goal and go for it step by step.
K2K: Beyond music it seems that you have a lot of other interests that round you out as a human being and the most interesting one that I have heard of is that you are a professional bee keeper. What is that all about?
SV: Well, not a professional. The way that, that started out was, I always like to find some little hobby to entertain myself and I don't usually have much time for it but we lived in Hollywood and our neighbor had bee's in their walls and my wife's garden always looked spectacular. So, we moved into this new property and the place was vacant for like ten years so everything was dead. Do you know what two acres of dead ground looks like? So, she went crazy planting and one of the ways to make your garden grow is by having it pollinated so I did a little research and I realized that it is a good hobby. I was always fascinated by bees. It is something that professional bee keepers are advocating because 95% of all the wild hives in America have died or are dying because of these mites that were introduced into the environment that are killing off the bees. They are very necessary for pollination so, I thought, what a cocky, wild thing to do and I have got five colonies. I started with one and they just grew. I harvest the honey a couple of times a year and give it to friends but I am definitely not a professional. It is fun really.
Written by David Lee Wilson

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