Interview with STEVE VAI
Interview by Mark Dean
Senior journalist, Mark Dean, caught up with legendary guitarist extraordinaire, Steve Vai, during his Passion and Warfare anniversary shows in the UK.
You are currently doing the Passion and Warfare anniversary gigs. How did it feel to revisit those old tunes again? Some of which you haven’t played live ever?
Ever. Yeah, it’s something that’s always floated in the back of my mind, to do this whole record. But the prospect was a little frightening, because when I make a record a lot of times the way I make a record is, I construct it. I don’t usually cut tracks and jam it, and stuff like that. I have a vision and it’s more compositional than visceral. Back then I was experimenting a lot with production so I was using things that would be very difficult to reproduce live. I knew that it was possible somehow, and when the idea to do this tour came up I just listened to it. We built backing tracks to fill out certain things. After learning it all I thought, “What was I afraid of?”
It’s really nice to revisit something that you’ve done creatively many years ago, because you get to see a little bit of who you were then. The person that I see, he’s still in here, because you always build on who you were. The cool thing was to see how courageous I was, and fearless. Fearless in chasing exciting ideas that at the time may not have necessarily had a place in the mainstream.
Was it something personally that you wanted to do it? Or was it maybe suggested to you?
Well, you’re a writer, right? You do jobs you know you can do, and you know you can be really effective at, but perhaps someplace lurking in the back of your mind is a story or a book that you would like to write that you don’t care if it’s successful or not. You just need to write it. You know what I mean? That was Passion and Warfare.
Any abiding memories of recording the album? What stands out for you personally? You have already indicated those things that you wanted to create. A sound, a particular feel? Anything that you did differently? You were in Whitesnake at the time… Or had you left Whitesnake?
No, I was working on Passion and Warfare through the Dave Roth years. Then when I was, when I had joined Whitesnake, that’s when I started to complete the record. The record came out when I was on tour with Whitesnake. It all worked out really great. David Coverdale was the first person I actually played Passion and Warfare for. I thought that the record was obscure and it would never really be received. I said that to David and he said, “Steven darling, you’re absolutely incorrect. This is a brilliant record, and you are going to be very surprised at the results.”
He did give you an opportunity to have a solo spot on that tour, to showcase the Passion songs?
He was incredibly generous, yes, he was incredibly generous. On the entire Whitesnake tour he gave me enough rope to hang myself every night. But your original question was, what were the outstanding moments. I’ll tell you what they were, and they may seem a little obtuse, but before I made Passion and Warfare I made Flex-Able. I continued recording and that became … and I just recently finished that material that I was working on after Passion and Warfare, I mean after Flex-Able and before Passion and Warfare. That’s called Modern Primitive, and that comes out with Passion and Warfare. It’s one of my favorite records I ever made. The thing that I really didn’t have an opportunity to do all the way up through, or up to Passion and Warfare was totally complete my ideas. Because I was always going from one gig to another, to another. As much as I enjoyed those other gigs, when I was working on Passion and Warfare was the first time since Flex-Able that I was able to engage myself in exciting musical idea and then complete it and experience it.
As I was completing and experiencing the pieces of music that I was recording for Passion and Warfare, the experience of the completion of the idea was the high point. That was the surprise every time. That was the thing I remember the most. Sure there’s a lot of things that I can talk about the recording process, and I can tell you, “Well, this happened when this guy came in, and this and that.” But really the experience of listening back to something that I imagined and actually feeling as though the final product had surpassed my expectations, that’s the shit, man.
When you joined Whitesnake was it on the understanding that it would be a short term thing? Obviously, Adrian Vandenberg had laid down the guitar tracks to the album. What remit were you actually given?
Well, you never know. But my instincts were that this is David Coverdale’s band. It will go through many transformations, as it had. Because Whitesnake was continually transforming, but David Coverdale is the kingpin. He’ll always … He is Whitesnake. I thought that it would be a nice opportunity to play with a great group of guys, and David especially because he’s just incredible. As far as making it a career, it didn’t seem likely to me because of all these other musical ideas I had going on. But it was never out of my comfort zone to consider that.
All of the people I’ve worked with in the past I may continue to do things with. I just … Devin Townsend just did a song on my record that’s brilliant, his contribution. I just saw David Coverdale the other day.
I saw that. He’s doing a “Greatest Hits” tour in the States with Whitesnake.
He’s doing great! He was going to … He wanted to contribute to the show, because I have videos and I have people from the past and friends of mine in the video, that I perform with. I did a wonderful little version of a Whitesnake song, but I was so crunched for time in putting this tour together that I didn’t get to complete everything. Although David is interested in doing it, it’s just figuring out the logistics. It’s just an opportunity to continue. I almost did a gig with Dave Roth not too long ago.
That’s going to lead on to my next question. You played with David Coverdale, you played with David Lee Roth. Do you ever see that idea of you performing in a band with a known vocalist? Would it be something that you’d welcome again?
Well, I wouldn’t unwelcome it. But it would have to be an extraordinary situation in order for me to apply a lot of time to it. Because … When I was 12 years old and I heard Led Zeppelin, that was a game changer. Jimmy Page’s whole MO had a huge impact on me. I loved the idea of being a side … the guy on the side with the lead singer. That’s what I, that was the formula I stuck to for many years. I was very comfortable with it even after Passion and Warfare, the idea of going out there and fronting the band was not very …
Comfortable to me, yes. That’s why when I did Sex and Religion I had another singer, it was Devin then. But then I warmed up to it and I did it and I realized I enjoy this very much. I like being in the front, I can do it. I’m relatively effective. That’s what I prefer, now. Having said that, I’m not opposed to working with a lead singer if the right situation came along, but forming a super-group and all that? I’m totally uninterested.
You seem to have very strong work ethic. I just wondered, is music everything, or do you have time for outside interests and hobbies?
Well, music isn’t my life. Music is something I do in life. Life is something much deeper than what you do in it. Although most of my time is focused on creating music, which I love. I love everything I do. Yesterday my wife and I walked all around Newcastle, I enjoyed that as (Steve Vai’s wife interjects “Manchester”) … I mean Manchester, here, and it was amazing. I enjoyed that as much as I would have enjoyed sitting home and making music. Then we went to the movies, I enjoyed that as much as anything. Then when I got home … it was funny because we’re walking and we were talking about the set and how I could use a couple more songs that are in a particular way. I said, “Well, I’m going to write a song as soon as I get to our room.” I picked up the guitar and I wrote a really cool song, so I got to experience music there. It’s a mindset. It’s a mindset that I’ve worked on, and that mindset is just figure out how to enjoy anything you’re doing in any given moment.
You seem generally laid back, easy going, chill sort of a guy? I just wondered what annoys or angers you?
Throughout my life there were various things that would cause great frustrations and anger and all this stuff. Impatience. But, I realize that all of those feelings are a form of suffering. The only thing that causes suffering in antibody’s life is the quality of the thoughts that they choose to think. It’s a spiritual discovery, really. It’s like mindfulness. I just decided that … I came to the realization that what I want in life is the same thing that everybody on the planet wants. Peace. Just to feel good and to be happy.
Whenever anybody approaches that idea, there’s always a “but.” “I want peace, but, so and so and so and so won’t allow it in my life.” Or, “This situation I’m in.” That’s all based on, just thoughts in your head. Really if you want peace you have to be able to separate yourself from the thoughts in your head and look at them, and discover ways of changing them. That’s what real courage is, it’s hard because we’re caught in thought patterns.
When you say “What angers me?” Almost nothing. Because I see and I still feel anger sometimes, but when I feel it I look at the thoughts that are creating it. This is a practice, and I’ve been practicing it for many years. I realize as good as it feels sometimes to feel angry, because it’s the ego gratification, it always ends up in suffering. I realize that I just don’t want that in my life. I don’t want to feel anger. Anger is really just another face of fear. Any kind of frustration or anything like that is just another face of fear. It’s all ego based. In order for me to come to grips with peace, even saying to you, “Nothing angers me” points me in that direction.
You’ve achieved so much in your career, I just wonder if you still have hopes, dreams, and ambitions?
Yes, but they’re not my primary concern. My primary focus in life is whatever I’m doing in this moment. You know what I mean? Finding enjoyment in this moment. Everything else is secondary because there’s no end to dreams and desires. Dreams and desires are creative impulses. That’s what a dream and a desire really is, is a creative impulse. That’s what we’re here for, to be creative. The universe is expanding in many ways, and one of its ways is through us and our creations. It’s so stupid obvious, don’t you think? We come from the universe, we’re not separate from it. Everything we do is an extension of it, and there’s never going to be a shortage of desires in you. But the thing that one needs to be aware of is being so attached to a desire that it’s who you are.
Who would you like to interview? If you could sit down face to face and interview somebody?
Future plans, musically and touring? I understand you have another album coming out soon.
It never ends. Well I have a new record coming out with Passion and Warfare. It’s called Modern Primitive. It’s new to fans. Some of it was recorded back in the, 30 years ago. It was completed recently and much of it was re-recorded now. But after that, I have a lot of … tremendous amounts of, I have lists upon lists upon lists of things I’d love to do. When you’re young you make these lists, and you have all these desires and you’re really eager to complete them. Then probably when I turned 50 I realized that each one of these desires could take anywhere from a month to 2 years to complete. There’s some looking and saying, “Oh, there’s enough here for 4 lifetimes.”
These Passion and Warfare gigs, are you extending them all around the world?
Not really. I’m doing Europe … relatively condensed European tour and American tour. Because it’s more of a legacy tour. I don’t want to be that guy that just, rehashing his days of yore.
That’s great, thank you very much. Looking forward to the show tonight. Appreciate you talking to me ahead of the show.
All right, thanks Mark.