Gary Steel converses with Steve Vai.
THEY’RE SELLING SAUSAGES in the Powerstation tonight. As a marketing strategy, it’s on the ball. This is a snags’n’chips kind of crowd; mostly guys who could easily pass an audition for Spinal Tap or some Monty Python movie set in the middle ages. Onstage is plank spanker supreme Steve Vai, a man who regularly tops every conceivable Best Guitarist poll and is considered an unarguable giant of the electric guitar.
Steve Vai is playing with jaw-dropping virtuosity, and the nearly all male, all leather crowd is playing air guitar and sweating profusely as one. It’s a rather glaring paradox, this non-drinking, non-smoking, vegan spiritualist and musical genius getting on down for a bunch of guys who look like they’d split your skull open if you so much as accidentally glanced at their girlfriend… if they had one. The irony isn’t lost on Vai who, when I meet him earlier that day, happily admits his dazzling virtuosity isn’t remotely understood by some of his fans.
“Some people come to my concerts and the guitar solos sound like a series of morse code. They’re tone deaf, but they see the lights, the movement, the colours, they like the beat, and that’s what they get out of it,” he observes.
He’s a forthcoming and articulate conversationalist, although it’s immediately apparent that the Vai dress sense hasn’t yet made an escape bid from the ‘80s, and he wears the obligatory sunglasses in the already somewhat subdued light of the hotel annex. There’s no rock star posing, however. Instead, there’s genuine, unbridled enthusiasm for the sell-out Auckland gig.
“No promoters would have us, because they thought I wouldn’t sell any tickets. I didn’t think I’d sell any!” he admits. “We finally found guys that said ‘okay, we’ll give it a shot’, and everything’s totally sold out!”
The whole tour has been a raging success for Vai, who is delighted that in Japan the audience was full of women.
“Oh, I milk that puppy! I see a woman in the audience, I worship her!” he says. “Normally, any women that come to the concerts feel like queens, because they’re surrounded by all these hot, sweaty musician-type guys!”
It’s a different story in America, where Vai has been declared past his ‘use by’ date.
“They’re so saturated with MTV, and there’s just so much rap and alternative stuff… they wouldn’t play my videos if I was on fire!” he alleges. “As a matter of fact, my bus burnt down on the last tour. We had to flee the bus for our lives, and we got videos of the bus burning down with all our stuff in it. My record company thought ‘we’ll get some press out of this’, and sent a copy of the video to MTV with the news report, and MTV said ‘we’re not gonna air this because it’s a promotional stunt’. Because the name of my record is Firegarden, they thought I’d burnt down my $450,000 bus, and risked my life and the life of my band and crew to get on that station!
“I’m not bitter, it’s just the way things go. There are a lot of people making music, and there are trends that come and go. The kind of music I make is unique to a certain audience that craves it. Steve Vai is just not right to be a pop star. I’m too musical, and that’s okay with me. Trends come and go, and I don’t have the energy or the time to try to be on the cutting edge of every trend. Then, it’s just like chasing feathers in the wind.”
As a 17-year-old Berkeley Music College student, Vai was hand-picked by the late renegade rock composer/guitarist, Frank Zappa, to transcribe his music. Zappa’s oddball brilliance and intense discipline was the perfect training ground for Vai, who ended up transcribing and notating swags of Zappa’s output – including a huge book of Zappa’s guitar solos – and joined the composer’s group for three intense years. His job? The official player of “impossible guitar parts.”
Vai was pushed into a solo career when Zappa dissolved the group to make music with computers, which may have been a good thing.
“I was so into Frank that I wanted to be like him, but my wit and mentality doesn’t even come close to Frank,” says Vai. “He was absolutely brilliant… he had a cynical edge, but knew how to round it off with a comical edge, too. If you’re hanging around with that, it’s easy to get into the cynicism, but if you can’t round it off with comedy, you can become pretty unhappy. So, I was having a sort of identity crisis.”
Vai has since produced a number of mostly instrumental guitar albums which have firmly established him as one of the all-time gods of the electric guitar, but this is plainly not enough. Last November, he staged the first concert of his orchestral compositions in New York, which a 60-piece orchestra, and has two more planned for mid-year in Jerusalem, with a 100 piece orchestra. He was motivated in this direction when he won a Grammy for his contribution to a Frank Zappa tribute concert featuring a full symphony orchestra.
“I wrote my first orchestra score in high school, and I’ve always been fascinated with little black dots, so when I won a Grammy I thought ‘let’s do a concert of my own music!’ It’s not boring stuff; it’s got muscle. To have an orchestra playing what you were hearing in your head is totally different, it’s organic. It’s not coming from metal strings through electric devices.”
The orchestral pieces are compositions Vai wrote years ago, and he is itching to compose longer and more elaborate works, but doesn’t see it happening any time soon.
“I’m constructing this concept for a new piece that’s about 45 minutes long, but it takes six months of 10 hours a day undisturbed time to compose it, notate it, orchestrate it. Then, I’d have to give it to somebody else and spend $25,000 having them copy the parts. So, it’s a big undertaking when you’re doing press and touring, and you’re a Dad and all that stuff!”
All that stuff includes the unmistakable sound, personality and sheer virtuosity of Vai playing his “metal strings through electric devices”. It’s a sound which might only turn on a small segment of the population, but turn on they do!
“My music demands a lot from the listener,” says Vai, who nevertheless reckons that being a non-musician is no barrier to enjoying his music. “When I listen to a piece of music, I know what everybody’s doing. I can hear the most complex piano concerto and I know exactly what the guy’s fingers are doing, but that’s not what I’m listening to. I’m listening to the sound, the way it’s feeling, the way it’s moving me, what it’s saying. I listen to it in an almost non-musical way.”
After the interview, badly hungover from a best mate’s wedding the previous evening, I linger with some buddies over a supplementary beer in the hotel bar. Soon, a sight to behold: Steve Vai in full running gear, thin as a rake, on his way to pound the Auckland pavements on this sunny Sunday afternoon. A virtuoso run. GARY STEEL
* Steve Vai performs at the ASB Theatre, Aotea Centre, The Edge, July 20, 2013. His band includes Dave Weiner (guitar), Jeremy Colson (drums), Philip Bynoe (bass) and Michael Arrom (keyboards).
Note from the author: This story was first published in Auckland monthly The Strip, in April 1997.