Songwriter Interviews

Steve Vai

by Greg Prato

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If you're not a guitar player, watching a largely instrumental performance by a guitarist may turn into a snoozefest. Not the case with Steve Vai.

As evidenced by his latest DVD/CD concert set, Stillness in Motion, Mr. Vai certainly knows how to hold the audience's attention, whether it be showing off some Prince-like dance steps (the band intro before "Building the Church"), a mobile drum set that features a talking skull ("Treasure Island"), and costume changes galore ("The Ultra Zone").

And if you look back at Vai's career, it certainly makes sense why he has mastered the art of keeping an audience entertained: He has played with and learned from some of the most entertaining performers rock n' roll has ever seen, including Frank Zappa, David Lee Roth, and David Coverdale.

Instead of talking about technique, we asked Vai about composition and inspiration, which led to an interesting discovery: he has amassed thousands of song fragments over the years. And it looks like he's finally figured out what to do with them.
Greg Prato (Songfacts): Let's start by discussing the DVD/CD, Stillness in Motion.

Steve Vai: Well, I had done the Story of Light record, and I wanted to set out and do a very in-depth tour. I wanted to really hit the road as hard as I could, and we had 253 engagements, basically, between the master classes and the shows. We did America twice, Europe twice, we were in Russia eight times. I spent a month in Russia, playing in places like Siberia and places I was told had never had an American rock band. I was in Kiev during the war. It was a very extensive tour. I really used it as an opportunity to dig as deep as I could into every note.

So there's opportunities to film these shows occasionally, and I look for the best opportunity. We had a show scheduled in Los Angeles [filmed October 12, 2012, at Club Nokia], and AXS, which is a high-definition Cable station, approached us with a desire to film it and have it seen live into like, 35 million homes. So I thought that would be a great opportunity to get a good videotaping of the show. And part of the deal was they gave me all of the tapes, and it was a beautiful nine-camera shoot. So that's pretty much how that came about.

Whenever I do a project, I try to bring something a little different than what I had done last time, and hopefully, something I've never seen really done before, so I kind of put that out there to the universe.

Recording the show, mixing it, and editing it, that's pretty common - it wasn't a big challenge. I didn't want to have just another live DVD, so towards the end of the tour, I came up with this idea - I was just waiting for something to come to me. The idea was, because this tour was so expensive and we went to so many different places, why not create a video diary of sorts, of bonus footage that would have every stop on the tour - at least a photo or some footage.

This idea came after the fact, so I had to go and dig up all of the footage that I could find - from the band, crew, fans, myself, my wife, anything that I could find - and put it in chronological order of the tour itself. It turned out to be three hours and 40 minutes of bonus footage called The Space Between the Notes. It's in nine legs, and I had such a blast doing it.

For people who are interested in this kind of thing, it turned out really good, because it's a really intimate look into the touring experience. You get to see how much we really enjoy being with each other and touring. There's a lot of love on tours, so to speak.

I think that was the real special thing that I was able to bring to the DVD and that was more of an incentive to do it. It just took a really long time to get all that footage and then put it in order and edit it. And there were pieces missing, so I had to hunt on YouTube for any kind of footage of the gig. It was a vast project, but it's done and it's out.

When you think about rock music, harp is not an instrument that immediately comes to mind, but there have been instances where it has appeared: Queen's "Love of My Life," Stevie Wonder's "If It's Magic," Manic Street Preachers' "Small Black Flowers That Grow in the Sky," Elvis Costello's "Any King's Shilling," Björk's "Like Someone in Love," and Lady Gaga's "Telephone."

It's not the easiest instrument to wrangle into a song, but a harp is heard throughout Vai's Stillness in Motion set. His harpist is Deborah Henson-Conant, who Vai calls "The Jimi Hendrix of the harp."
Songfacts: I thought it was interesting that a harp player was part of the band, as it's not an instrument normally associated with rock music.

Vai: Yeah, it's not. But it's another attempt to bring some different dimension into standard convention. And because I'm also a composer and I kind of understand how a harp works, I knew that I would find a way to supplement the rock band with it. And it was an experiment that, at times, worked out really well.

Songfacts: Let's discuss the inspiration behind several tracks, starting with "Tender Surrender."

Vai: Every now and then, you feel something that's going to come out of you, and you have almost a preamble, if it's going to be special or not. So I was sitting and recording something in the middle of one of my records - I always keep some sort of a documenting device around. I felt this urge to just play and to get out of the way, and I hit the first chord and I sang the melody, and just fished for it. Once it's there, it's almost like low-hanging fruit.

So then I had this cassette with me singing just the first verse melody and the chord changes, and I knew that it had some energy to it. There was a presence to it. So I just put it on the shelf, and it was yelling at me for about ten years. Finally when I listened back to it, I said, "I know there's a beautiful song in there," so I completed it, and then when it was done, I listened to it, and it told me its name.

Songfacts: What about "Bad Horsie"?

Vai: I had done this movie, Crossroads, and in it, there was a part in the script where it called for the guitar to sound like a locomotive. So immediately, I put on my "locomotive cap," and knew that if I tuned down and went chugga-chugga-chugga, it would sound like a massive iron behemoth of a train. I thought it was a cool riff, so I always kept it in the back of my mind.

And then one night, I had this bizarre dream where I was on this giant metal horse and we were running through this field. This train was chasing us, and you know when you're in a field of grass, you don't know where the tracks are? So every place you turn, the train was following. So then I decided to turn the horse around and go directly at the front of the train, and that's when I woke up, before we collided. That's when I said, "OK, I've got to write a song about this."

In the summer of 1986, Vai started getting Eddie Van Halen-level accolades and recognition when he appeared on David Lee Roth's hit solo album, Eat 'Em & Smile. But a few months before the album appeared, movie goers enjoyed a preview of Vai's six-string skills, thanks to a cameo in the film Crossroads, starring Ralph Macchio. In a pivotal scene, Vai (who plays the role of the devil's guitar player) takes on Macchio in a guitar duel. As Vai explains below, it turns out he had a major hand in composing the solos and teaching Macchio his guitar parts.

And it turns out both Vai and Macchio originally hail from the same location - Long Island, New York - that has spawned quite a few big names in the entertainment industry over the years: Billy Joel, Jerry Seinfeld, Mariah Carey, Howard Stern, LL Cool J, Steve Buscemi, Lou Reed, Chuck D, Brian Setzer, Joe Satriani, Dee Snider, Alec Baldwin... and even the gentleman writing this, Greg Prato!
Songfacts: I've always enjoyed the guitar duel scene from Crossroads, between you and Ralph Macchio. What do you recall about it?

Vai: Well, Ry Cooder and I worked it out, and worked on it until it made sense for a visual duel with guitar players. Because if you listen, there's a nice build to each person's part, and then there's a call-and-response. It had to be structured a particular way that made it obvious that there was a duel going on, and that there was a winner.

Ralph is a professional - he was fantastic. So once we got that far, he got the gist of it all himself. For instance, when I was writing the fast part towards the end, where his hands are jumping all over the place, I knew that something needed to be performed that looked extraordinary when you were watching it from an audience's point of view that doesn't really understand the guitar.

So I just said, "Fast moving hands, going up and down - that works nicely as a visual," but it had to connect with notes. So I worked with Ralph on just showing him how to fake it, and he was great. He was a dream to work with.

Songfacts: What do you recall about the song "Sisters"?

Vai: Oh, I wrote that in like, high school. Every now and then, you just stumble across something that just feels good and makes sense. So I had that riff, and it was one of the first kind of sweet, simple riffs that sounded like my own unique piece of music back in the day when I was a teenager. So it was a very exiting moment when it just kind of fell out of my fingers.

I don't know where it comes from - the infinite field of potentiality that is in everybody - but I just remember playing it over and over and over. I just fell in love with it. It took all the pain away from anything I might have been going through as an angst-riden teenager, or any issues at all. I would just sit and play it over and over, and it just felt so beautiful. And it eventually evolved into a song. It was another one that lived on a shelf for many years. It was important enough for me to put it on that record.

And I called it "Sisters" because I have two sisters that I love dearly. Very, very close. My sister Lillian, my younger sister, was basically my best friend growing up. And my older sister, Pam, has been my assistant for 30 years. So the song was completed, I listened to it, and I just said, "What does it feel like? What does this song make me feel?" And it just felt like a beautiful warmth and tenderness that I feel with my sisters.

Songfacts: How many compositions do you still have left over from your teenaged years that are still sitting on the shelf?

Vai: Well, consider that at least one to five times a day, I either recorded some little snippet of a riff or an idea. Not every day, obviously, but even before cassettes, I was composing constantly, and then whenever I was on tour, I'd be composing on airplanes or hotel rooms with written ideas. And then through the years, maybe a week will go by where I don't record something, but that's very rare. Most of the time, it's between one and three times a day.

These are snippets: some more involved, some complete compositions. I couldn't even begin to count them.

When I got off this last tour, I was starting to prepare for another record, so I thought it was time to try and bring everything together - all of the snippets. I've been doing it through the years, but now I tried to document them all, and it's just overwhelming because they're hidden all over the place in all sorts of formats. But I think I got it - I finally got about 80% of them, and they're on two-terabyte drives.

I find through the years, you can come up with something that just feels good, and what I'll do is just capture a moment of it, because then if I go back and listen to it in the future, it takes me back to the original inspiration and I see the song unfold. What I'm realizing now - being 55 - is I have to stop doing that, because they're never going to be made. The songs are never going to actually be recorded and completed, so I can have a library of snippets, but they're useless unless they're made into songs.

And there's not enough time. There would never be - I would need ten lifetimes just for the snippets that I've recorded in this lifetime so far. One of the big challenges for me is letting go of a lot of the music that I thought that I would be able to make.

August 5, 2015.
For more Steve, visit vai.com.

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Comments: 1

  • Tim Barrett Krock 101.5 from OahuSteve Vai..From Zappa to D.L. Roth to G3...and then some! Thanks Greg for the Steve Vai interview!
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