It doesn’t matter what you or I think about Steve Vai. There are no statues dedicated to critics, no lifetime achievement awards for music journalists. Vai is an undeniable talent, taught guitar by the likes of Joe Satriani, weaned into the music industry by Frank Zappa, and who found his own way in whatever musical landscape he thought was interesting a particular time. He’s a shredder, sure, but he’s also a keen student of music theory, and has a genuine appreciation for artists from Tom Waits to Skrillex.
This appreciation is very evident on Vai’s latest album, The Story of Light, which brings together proto-blues, Celtic melodies, progressive rock, metal — you name it. But there’s no mistaking that it’s Steve Vai. I caught up with Steve in the midst of his nationwide tour, and got to chat with him about the new album, his unexpected influences, and how his son got him back into vinyl.
Every person I know who’s even touched a guitar is insanely jealous of me right now.
So, The Story of Light continues a story arc from your previous album, 2005’s Real Illusions: Reflections. Why concept albums today?
The story has been kicking around years before that. When you’re the kind of artist that I am, you can really do anything that you want. I don’t really have to worry too much about radio airplay and stuff like that, so I can get pretty esoteric. And my music is kind of esoteric as it is, so I thought, “What if I take a story and kind of stretch it out over a series of records and create a concept/story that can unfold through time?”
So when I did Real Illusions, I basically had the story – what I wanted it to be – and I had the characters… the thought was to create the songs based on characters or events in the story and then display them over a series of three records, but not in any proper order – and they just get snippets of the concept of the story through the lyrics or the liner notes so people who are not really interested in following the concept… they don’t really have to. They aren’t getting clobbered over the head with it.
But those who are really interested in fetishing the details, they can start putting pieces together. And then the idea is after the next record – and it’s not going to be the next record I record – just whenever I do the third installment, it will be similar; it will have pieces and will have little story chunks here and there. And then the goal would be at sometime in the future to create a four-CD box set that has all the songs in the proper order, with maybe some melodic songs having lyrics and adding narrative, so it’s a real story you can follow from beginning to end.
I’ve heard these albums compared to an opera in terms of its scope. Was that your intent at all?
Well, the word “opera” has a lot of stigmas attached to it. But in a sense, yes. Operas can be up to four hours or even five hours long… yeah, I would say you can use the word. [Laughs]
For somebody like you who has a reputation for technical proficiency, is the telling of this story as important to you as the guitar wizardry you’re known for – or is it all a balancing act?
Well, you know one of the traps that we have a tendency to fall into is the quantization of a person’s contribution. Like, this person’s a pop star, so everything they do should be this. This person’s a singer and everything should be like this. Or this person’s an instrumental guitar player, so everything should be like this. I was very, very fortunate that I worked for Frank Zappa at a very young age. Frank was very independent and he didn’t play any of that stuff. He didn’t play into any of the freeze-dried, pre-packaged expectations of what a particular artist should be.
And right from the start, too.
Yeah, right from the beginning! Working with him and seeing his freedom and independence was very inspiring. So, I’ve always felt that you can do anything that you want – and you CAN. I think one of the things that holds people back and maybe even has held me back, is just the fear of not being accepted in a particular genre.
I get criticized for doing what an “instrumental guitar player” who’s very proficient shouldn’t be doing. But I never really saw it as such. I always wanted it all. I was very inspired by theater when I was younger. My parents were listening to West Side Story when I was a little kid and it just really captured me – it totally captivated me. There was a story – and it was a cool story – and there was historic music and melody, and beautiful, grandiose themes and tension and resolve. I always wanted to do that. You reach a point when you say, “Why can’t I? There’s nothing stopping me.”
So, I love being very proficient on the instrument because it helps me express ideas. I like being a performer on stage because people enjoy it – that’s what I enjoy. I like being funny sometimes; a lot of my music has a lot of humor in it. But I’m very esoteric and I read a lot of spiritual literature and I’m very , very interested in that, and that makes its way into my music. You reach a point where you think, well, why wait and why not?
It used to be the hallmark of rock musicians to be constantly experimenting as you do, but it seems almost unimportant to success today. Would you say that’s accurate?
Well, mainstream has the particular microscope on it, you know what I mean? When you take a mainstream artist like Christina Aguilera, she’s very gifted and she does what she does best and she has her audience. For her to branch off, she’ll do it in her own way, like she’ll do a movie. Every artist has their comfort zone of expanding their universe.
It’s rare that you find – like Lady Gaga, for instance. She’s so obviously talented and driven. And she introduces various elements into what she’s doing, so it wouldn’t surprise us if she did a big concept record sometime – and that would be really cool! If she decided to be something like what I was doing, over a couple of records, I’m sure she’d have a much bigger budget! [Laughs] But for a pop star to all of a sudden be a maverick and do something wildly different, it is very, very rare because there’s fear of losing your audience, there’s fear of failure. A lot of the time, pop stars have to live from one hit to another because if they don’t, they’re doomed.
You don’t usually see it in the mainstream, but in the subculture of art you’ll find a lot of artists that will incorporate all forms of art into various parts of the way they express themselves – like Moby or Billy Corgan or maybe Trent Reznor. They do it in their own way.
Speaking of bringing in other art to your own art, In “John the Revelator,” you sample a vintage recording of blues singer Blind Willie Johnson. What other music informed the creation of this album? What else inspired you so directly?
There’s a lot of things. I try not to put up any restrictions on what comes into my radar for inspiration. It’s funny because if you go back and talk to your guitar friends, who are interested in the fact that you’re talking to me, and you start talking blues, the first thing they’ll say is, “Well, you know, Steve Vai’s not really a great blues player.” And Steve Vai will be the first guy to tell you, no, I’m not an authentic style blues player – but that doesn’t mean I don’t like the blues. What resonates with me in other artists is their sincerity and their core inspiration.
So, when I listen to Blind Willie Johnson, who I sampled for “John the Revelator” in the beginning there, a lot of people say that’s blues – but it’s blues BEFORE the blues. It’s as authentic an expression as you can get. Matter of fact, it came from a record called Anthology of American Folk Music and this whole record – this four-CD box – is filled with people who were making music that had absolutely no concept of “radio”. There was no radio – well, maybe there was, but it was nothing like it is today. None of that stuff existed. They were working on farms and they were playing real, roots Americana. It’s preachers and reverends and all this stuff. And Blind Willie Johnson, when I was listening to his stuff, there was an authenticity to it that was moving. So, I was inspired to dress it up the way Steve Vai would dress something like that up.
That was great, but there was another song on the record called “Mullach a’ tSí” – it’s the seventh song and it’s actually an old Celtic folk song that I first heard on this record called, Celtic Lullabies. It’s a beautiful record filled with these enchanted melodies. When you listen to cultural music, the musicians that perform it are steeped in their traditions. The way that they approach their music is based on what they know of their traditions. As a result, you get these people who are expressing themselves with all of these unique nuances of melody and articulation and dynamics and time signatures and harmonic structures. So you get something very different, but very authentic – they don’t know anything about Led Zeppelin.
I heard this one performance of this woman, Padraigin Ni Uallachain, who was the inspiration for “Mullach a’ Tsí” – and in her voice were these absolutely exquisite, unique nuances that when I heard them I identified with them on the guitar, but they were nothing I’ve ever played and it’s nothing I’ve ever heard anybody play. But because I have a particular ear for music, I was able to incorporate these really delicate, beautiful nuances into the melody, so you get a whole different approach.
So there’s an example of how I was inspired by a cultural style that expanded my musical vocabulary, but has nothing to do with Blind Willie Johnson, you know?
The Platinum Package of The Story of Light contains a 7” vinyl disc with two tracks from the new album: “John the Revelator” and “Book of the Seven Seals.” What made you decide to do a 7” single?
I like vinyl, and I come from a vinyl world. When I was a teenager it was all about vinyl, and there’s a quality and sound to vinyl; there’s a new resurgence in vinyl right now and I am a vinyl collector. I have a record player in my studio and I have my vinyl collection from when I was a kid – the ones that survived – and I go out and I buy vinyl. I may add right now, too, that at this very moment – it’s actually a funny coincidence – we are constructing the vinyl release of The Story of Light.
But for me, there’s an integrity to vinyl when it’s done properly that I enjoy. Here’s the challenge that a vinyl collector has when they go out and buy vinyl: A lot of times, record companies that control masters jump on the bandwagon of a vinyl resurgence and they take digital masters that have been converted through inferior converters from years ago – like, they take CD masters from analog conversions – and they use it to carve vinyl and it really defeats the purpose.
When I spoke with Pat Travers, he mentioned this same phenomenon.
Yeah, and it’s really horrible. For instance, I had an old T. Rex vinyl record. I was in a record store and I saw a new release of it and I bought it, and it was not a very good conversion. So, I found my old record and listened to it and it was very different. So, whenever I mix a record – like when I mixed The Story of Light – I mixed it to analog tape also while I mixed it to digital. To retain the integrity of the digital, the digital masters were used in the making of the CD and the digital releases. But I have the analog masters that are being cut up as we speak to be sequenced for an analog release on 180 gram vinyl that’s an authentic analog vinyl release. Because that’s my idea of a good time. [Laughs]
What system do you play your records on – is it your old one or new?
You know, I’ve got to tell ya – three Christmases ago, my wife bought me the really nice turntable, but I don’t know the name of it, but it was really good. In a turntable, the quality is in the stylus; the thing to spend money on is the stylus, because that’s going to give you the best response from the vinyl. The monitoring system I have is absolutely to die for. I have Ocean Wave speakers – it’s like a $60,000 speaker system.
What records do you find yourself playing most often?
My Zappa collection, and if I was going to choose one – Bongo Fury. Captain Beefheart, Trout Mask Replica. I bought the entire Tom Waits vinyl reissues – Small Change is just fabulous. And my old vinyl collection is still pretty intact. I have everything – I listen to all of my old progressive ‘70s stuff like Queen, Queen II, Led Zeppelin II, Led Zeppelin IV – I could go on and on. I have a beautiful vinyl collection. It’s not really big, but it’s a treasure for me.
Interestingly, my son – I have two boys – when my son was 14 (he’s 20 now), that’s when I got back into vinyl. He saw an old turntable and asked me, “What’s that?” And I said, “Well, that’s a turntable. You play records on it.” And he said, “What’s a record?” [Laughs] So I set it up for him and we put on an old Zappa record that I had – this was a record that was recorded on analog, mixed to analog, and burned to vinyl without any digital interruption.
It was so obvious me the depth of the stereo field, the quality, the feeling of the sound – and it wasn’t even a really good turntable! And I was like holy shit! And he’s listening to it and tells me, “Wow, Dad, this is really good!” and for years he used that turntable. That’s when I started getting back into the vinyl thing, because it was a really obvious difference. It kind of reminded me of the way I felt when I first heard digital – this sounds really clean, but there’s something missing. And then you just get used to it.
As you were rediscovering your vinyl collection, were you reminded of any particular songs that influenced you as a guitar player?
Well, there’s always songs in an artist’s career that open their eyes. Probably one of the songs I’ve heard in my life that I can point to that really was a pivotal moment was when I heard Led Zeppelin’s “Heartbreaker.” The solo in that just really put me over the edge.
And then when I heard Frank Zappa’s “Muffin Man” – my heart just exploded, you know?
When I heard Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring”… it was just this epiphany.
The first real Tom Waits song that I heard from Mule Variations…it’s like a little gift in life. It’s like the universe says, “By the way, you’ve been a good boy, so here’s something to change the quality of your life for the rest of your life!”
[I love it when] you discover an artist that’s just with you forever. It still happens to this day! It happened not too long ago, and this may sound a little bizarre, but my kids bring home all this music. My son Fire, who’s 20, brought home Skrillex because he’s into all this trip-hop, house stuff. And I was stunned at how cool it sounded – the layering and the sounds. I have an awareness of the studio that’s based on my experience and that experience is based on what I hear other people do and how I can amalgamate it and explore it. But every now and then somebody comes along that’s completely off your radar and does something that’s not in any of your evolutionary, inspirational artists, and you’re just like, what the fuck is that? Wow! That’s nice when that happens.
Kind of in line with the way there’s been a resurgence toward vinyl versus digital formats, there has also been a resurgence toward tube amps vs. solid state amps. Were you aware of this when you created your tube amp line for Carvin?
Well, I equate it to this: Things that enter our ears resonate with our inner being. That’s just really obvious – that’s an esoteric way of answering that, but it’s true. And for even unknown reasons we may be attracted to a particular sound, even though the music may not be as acceptable to us. So, analog gear and analog sound and tube amps and all that stuff has a certain way that their frequencies resonate. There’s a quality of the frequency. It’s like if you had a rope that was in the shape of a sine wave and you replaced that rope with a shoestring. It’s still in a sine wave, but you’re not getting the entire signal and it has a different effect on you. Digital is just numbers, you know? Analog is a whole different world.
The same thing holds true for amplifiers – tube amplifiers and stuff like that. There’s a parallel there. In the amplifier world, there was a period where amp modeling and digital plug-in amps was a craze and everybody was like, “Ooo, wow – look at this plug-in! It will make this sound like a Fender Bandmaster head!”
But it’s just numbers, it’s all zeroes and ones and it has an effect on you. The notes you’re playing through an amp may be just as beautiful or just as melodic, but it effects your inner being differently. So for want of a better reason, people will experiment with different things, but their inner being will be attracted to the organic things more because of the way they resonate with them. There will always be crazes here and there, but there always seems to be a return of sorts to whatever format really resonates.