Friends of LITA | Q&A with Steve Vai

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‘Tis a true honor to have legendary musician and guitar innovator Steve Vai as part of our Friends of LITA series this week. The master guitarist, songwriter, and producer, has sold over 15 million albums and recorded with Public Image Ltd., Frank Zappa, Alcatrazz, David Lee Roth and Whitesnake. I was able to nab a few minutes with the magic man who graciously answered some select zingers about his insane career history. Thanks to Todd Harapiak for contributing some Q’s for the fun-eat ‘em and smile! xx Jazz Rotter

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Steve Vai [SV]: JAZZ?

Jess Rotter [JR]: Jess.

SV: Oh Jess, okay oh okay. Yeah how are you?

JR: I’m good! You?

SV: I’m good.

JR: So I wanted to start by asking you about your experience with PIL and what it was like recording with John Lydon, and was Ginger Baker working with you guys?

SV: Yeah. I got a call from a friend of mine who was good friends with Bill Laswell who was producing that record. Bill is an amazing producer and he had a concept to create this record with Lydon that was different than anything he’s done before. He was really into these African atmospheres and rhythms and that cultural kind of a sound and he wanted to incorporate that into something with Lydon and they needed a guitar player. They had a great guitar player that was working on the project, Nicky Skopelitis, who actually did do some of the rhythm guitar on there and they called me I was very happy to do it and it was a really great project. It was very easy and I flew in, I was able to fly in because I was on tour and I flew in for two half-days and did all the guitars. And Ginger Baker’s tracks were all done and I didn’t work with him, per se, you know, these days you just get the tracks and put your parts down, but it was really a great project because I didn’t have to worry about all the things I usually deal with when I’m making my own music. I just showed up and played. It was a lot of freedom. It was like, “here’s the tracks: do whatever you want.” It turned out really great..it was one of my favorite projects.

JR: Oh I love that record so much.

SV: It grew some real legs too because I’m always asked about it and that community really embraced that record. Lydon is this amazing guy…he’s a personality. A total character.

JR: Do you guys keep in touch?

SV: Well we’ve run into each other through the years and he’s always been really cool. He came in the last night we were recording and he listened to everything and just goes (in Lydon voice) “It’s fuckin’ great, man!” That was a great moment of approval because, he’s really tough. But when you have somebody’s attention, when you’re working with celebrities, they get approached all the time by people, but they have to develop this defense mechanism. you can be nice, but if you engage with everyone you’d have no life. Everyone wants to know you and everybody wants to know all about you and it gets to be where you make this dividing line in your mind how close you can let people get. So a sort of defense mechanism kicks in. Those same people, when they’re working with other people they trust, they are much more open and normal.

JR: It’s interesting because even in that time, bands didn’t owe fans what they do now…like no twitter, instagram, blogs…you could still be a little bit mysterious.

SV: Yeah, the moment you get off your bus, you’re on display for the world: people are taking pictures and videos of you and posting them. It was very apparent and interesting with the most recent presidential elections that took place because all these politicians who like to say stuff about their past…everything they did is completely revealed to world.

JR: Of course. Being a musician who has toured for a really long time and experiencing this shift where, the audience has become the same stage as the rock star/musician because so many people need to make the experience their own. Whereas years ago, you were this mysterious figure onstage and you didn’t control everything through your phone…that being said, do you participate in social media?

SV: There are various components. One is making the music and doing your best to capture your vision. Another is promoting it. Then touring. The internet has been very useful and valuable for promoting and cultivating an audience. I can write a note and 2000 people see it on my facebook and they know what I’m doing now. So in many respects, it’s just been a godsend, it’s the natural curve of things. So I look at new technology and embrace it.

JR: It’s a curse and a blessing.

SV: Yeah…it’s actually really great. People will always try and find things wrong with it, but it’s usually just your attitude…your perspective shapes everything. Even with the evolution of technology and the way that it uncovers your privacy, there are still ways to keep things private. You don’t have to invite people into your house, you don’t have to tell people things that you don’t want to tell them. I’m pretty transparent: I invite cameras into my studio, I do walk-throughs, I post certain things, I don’t have anything to hide…I don’t care. I like when my fans know who I am and know what I’m doing if they’re interested. However, there are things that I keep to myself because there’s no need to share them.

JR: They don’t need to know what you had for lunch but they can see your studio…

SV: Well, you know, I’m having risotto for lunch in case you’re interested (laughs)

JR: How did you get into playing guitar?

SV: It was one of those epiphanies I had when I was about 5 years old. I saw a young boy playing guitar and I said “Ok. I get it. That’s it” and I fell in love with the instrument. Didn’t start playing until I was almost 12, on Long Island. However, I wasn’t the first one in my house to play guitar. My younger sister Lillian actually had a guitar before I did. She’s amazing. She’s probably my best friend.

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JR: Can you tell us a little bit about how you started working with Zappa? I know you started out transcribing music for him, and then became a member of his touring band…?

SV: I started sending Frank music…transcriptions, and I sent him a tape of my band. He enjoyed it and he was impressed enough to ask me if I wanted to audition for the band and I told him I was 18 and he said..”Oh…you’re too young.” So when I turned 20, a day after my 20th birthday, I moved out to California. I always knew I was going to move to Los Angeles…from when I was 12 or 13 years old. I just knew. I think it was because there was this TV show called “The Partridge Family” and they were based in Los Angeles so I thought that if young people can be in a band and play music in a place like the Partridge Family in Los Angeles that’s where I gotta go. So when I moved out here I just started going up to Frank’s house and recording, and he was putting a band together for his Fall 1980 tour and he invited me to audition and I got the gig. I wanted to be close to him…I moved into an apartment basically right down the street from his house.

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JR: Do you have any memorable Zappa stories you could share?

SV: Oh…I’ve got oceans of them…geez which one?! The thing about Frank that was so amazing was that he was totally present in everything that he did; he was focused and was listening very closely. He had the ability to be completely focused. He would get an idea and he would just do it. He was extraordinarily independent and didn’t rely on anybody else to do it for him and never made excuses. He just did things, So when I was young and impressionable and I was with him for like 6 years, so when I went off on my own, I just thought that’s how you did it. You get an idea, it’s an exciting idea, and you just execute it, without any excuses or anything and it was beautiful training. Not to mention everything i’ve learned from him in the way of being independent.

JR: Is it true that one of your custom-made guitars is the go-to guitar for members of Korn?

SV: Well, I designed a guitar called the “JEM” about 30 years ago with Ibanez and was/is a beautiful guitar. Still very available and successful. There were certain features that were relatively unique and in the early 90s I had them make me the same guitar, but with 7 strings. And at the same time that I was using that guitar, a lot of young bands that hadn’t really been discovered yet were being influenced by the 7-string. Some of them, like the guys in Korn, were fans, and because they saw the potential of how the instrument could contribute to what they wanted to do…because is was tuned down, it was really heavy…it was totally new. So these guys embraced this guitar and created a whole new sub-genre of music which today, is well, it’s metal. These days, it’s rare to see a contemporary metal band that isn’t either using a 7 or even now an 8-string or isn’t tuned way down. It was nice to see all that happen but I kind of thought that it would, because I knew that the 7-string guitar had potential to do what it was gonna do, and after I was using it, Ibanez was the only company making them and they sold, and then it slowed down, because it was more of a novelty. But what was happening when it slowed down, was young bands were starting to make music with it and when they became popular, everybody wanted a 7-string and virtually all guitar companies started making a 7-string guitar as part of their production line, so that just snowballed into contemporary metal.

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JR: So, Steve, you are pretty much responsible for the 7-string metal guitar?

SV: Yeah…sorry about that! (Both laugh) I know, I’m kidding. A lot of people say I’m responsible but really it was just a simple idea, there was nothing brilliant about it. It took one minute. I said to Ibanez, “Hey! can you make me a JEM with 7-string?” and then I used it. But the people who created that music scene that embraced that guitar, they’re the one’s that are really responsible.

JR: Guitar hacks really want to know how much they should be practicing a day…do you have any gospel for this?

SV: Well, I think it varies from person to person based on what their goals are. You know, if your goals are just to learn chords and have a good rhythm sound so you can write songs, it doesn’t require woodshedding for hours and hours a day. Anybody can pick up a guitar and learn some chords and you be very successful in the music business by not being a virtuoso. As a matter of fact, being a virtuoso limits you to a degree. Then there’s people who want to be more proficient and they just like playing, they want to play blues and they’ll be told to just practice as much time as necessary for them to reach their goal. If they want to play bad enough, they’ll just automatically find the appropriate time to practice. If somebody wants to be a world-class elite guitar virtuoso, they’re gonna need to put in a lot lot lot more hours than the guy who wants to sit and play Beatles songs you know. But it’s not like a prerequisite where someone like myself could say, “You need to practice 10 hours a day.” Much of it is based on the natural abilities of the player. Most guitarists I’ve met have more of a natural ability to play the instrument than me. I had to work really really hard because playing the guitar was not natural. Music was very natural for me, surprisingly natural. But playing an instrument…I worked really really hard. I was putting in 10-15 hours a day, but that was because it was what I wanted to do. That’s what I was really excited to do. So my answer is that you need to put in the hours that you desire to put in. The crux is you are only going to be as proficient as your natural talent and the hours you put in will allow.

JR: What are you listening to right now? Can you share a couple of albums that have inspired you in the past months or year?

SV: There are a few artists that I immediately gravitate to. One is Tom Waits, he’s one of my main go-tos…he’s like my favorite artist. I like Devin Townsend, a metal guy…amazing amazing artist. I listen to certain classical music, contemporary classical music, like György Ligeti and Edgard Varèse and Stravinsky and [Luciano?] Berio…stuff like that. I like to listen to obscure cultural music. And like for instance I got the new Eminem record, I listened to that. On my iPad is The Winery Dogs, I got the new Jonny Lang record and oddly enough I recently discovered Bob Dylan. When I was younger I was a guitar player and I didn’t understand folky songwriting and I’d listen to guys like Bob Dylan and go, “He’s not shredding!!” I liked 70s rock bands like Led Zeppelin and Deep Purple and Queen so to me, guys like Bob Dylan, it was like “Ew! What is this shit?” I created a mindset and I was stuck in it for decades and finally one day, about 6 months ago I was talking to a friend who was a big Dylan fan and I said to him, “Well I love Tom Waits and Dylan is no Tom Waits.” And he goes, “You should listen to him and figure it out.” So I actually went out and bought Dylan’s last record and I came to it with a very fresh perspective in the sense that I wasn’t in awe because it was Bob Dylan, and I really got it and I really saw the brilliance in it and I understood why he was Bob Dylan. I really enjoyed it and went back and bought his first and second record, which I really enjoyed…he is just a natural, inspired songwriter.

JR: The last question I have for you is what is on the horizon for you?

SV: Well, I’m going to finish editing and mixing this video, but before I release it I’m going to release another “7th Song” compilation. I released one before, and it consists of the 7th song from all my records, because that’s usually the song that’s the beautiful, soaring guitar ballad. And now I’m at the point where I have enough material to release “The 7th Song: Volume II”. Then I’ll work on getting the DVD done. Then I head off to Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, Greece, Tel-Aviv, Turkey, and Russia. Finally some shows in Scandinavia and that’s the end of the tour. Then I’ve got some orchestra shows coming up. I’ll probably start working on the 25th anniversary release of “Passion and Warfare” which was my most popular record. I’m pretty much booked through 2015 up to 2016.

JR: Thank you so much for taking the time to do this- it’s a treat and I’m a huge fan and I’m just really honored that you took the moment to do this…we really appreciate it.

SV: Well thank you and good luck to you guys!

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For more information about Steve’s upcoming projects and tour please visit www.vai.com.