The venerable guitarist Steve Vai came to the Royal Oak Music Theatre this past Friday to tell his tale of "The Story of Light". A shaman of the strings, he needs no introduction to the music world as one of the greatest guitarists of our time. Blending a ethereal layer of harmonies, melodies and riffs, Steve and his band performed a magical 2 1/2 hour set of wondrous sound that reached in to one's heart and soul to tell it's story. Slicing the notes from the air, drawing the very essence of his music from the crowd, Steve majestically commands his instruments as if they were the very extension of his body. Conjuring sounds that often at times seem drawn from another dimension, he captivated the audience with song after song, relentless, tirelessly and effortlessly. I was fortunate to be able to get some time with him before the show for an interview and this is what he had to say.
Steve: Thank you, nice to be here in Detroit today.
Steve: My last studio album was in 2005, but the problem for me is I get interested in a lot of different projects. Since then I’ve done a year long concert tour, composed two hours of orchestra music, edited it, had it performed and recorded a double CD and DVD of that, which took two years. Then I did various tours with Dweezil Zappa (Zappa plays Zappa), the Experience Hendrix tour, then I put a band together and toured and made a live CD and DVD. So I’ve really kept busy, then one day I picked my head up and said "Uh oh!", I’ve really gotta make a studio record.
Steve: I think whenever going in to the creative element, we sort of gravitate to the things that are really interesting to us. That’s why there are so many songs written about love and sex, or songs about how much people hate themselves or somebody else. Through my life I’ve always had a deep interest in reading various religious and spiritual literature, reading books written by very inspirational speakers that as you go through them, you extract stuff that makes sense to you and build a belief system upon it. The issue of spirituality has always been at the forefront of my thoughts and studies throughout the years, so naturally when I go in to creating music, I also have all this intense academic music knowledge, and my brain sort of mixes all this stuff together which gives me the music that I write. "The Story of Light" is sort of the second installment of a trilogy of records that I’ve been working on, the last one being my studio album "Real Illusions". When I went to do that I had a story that I wanted to express over a series of records because it was pretty esoteric and kind of in-depth. Those stories reflect my interests and that’s pretty much how I do it.
Steve: One of the things that has always been the juice for me as a guitar player is the idea that the guitar is an infinite instrument and you’ll never tap out it’s resources. For me through the years, when ever I’d pick up a guitar the thing that always lit me up was trying to come up some kind of interesting new riff or phasing or melody. As a result I use my records as an opportunity to find these things. It’s a great way to expand your musical vocabulary. A lot of it is very subtle to the average listener but maybe guitar players will hear how a lot of those things evolved. The one technique that you just mentioned is one that I came across that I thought was really cool which is the process of bending octaves with the whammy bar and creating melodies by sliding the octaves around. It’s something I’ve never done and don’t think I’ve ever heard, so I used it on the song called "The Moon and I". Things like that are little treasures for me when you find something that feels really cool and sounds good. That’s the juice for me.
Mick: Is it challenging for you to come up with new sounds these days?
Steve: It’s always a challenge, you always want to try and raise your own bar. You have to have the desire to do something; it has to be your M.O. Sometimes it’s to the detriment of some pop-iconess or radio play that you might have an opportunity to have. But I think artistic people are driven by an inner vision of sorts, sometimes they don’t even know if it’s accessible or if it’s going to be appreciated or not, but they just feel compelled to do it. When you feel that way you’re always on the lookout to expand your vision.
Steve: Yes! In the mid-eighties CD-ROMs were really popular and there was this one that came out called "Ocean Way Microphone Locker". Allen Sides is a world class engineer who runs some of the best studios in the world and has the most elaborate collection of antique and contemporary microphones. He made this amazing CD-ROM that had all these microphones that showed you what they were, gave you all these specs on them and it paired them with instruments that they were best used for. It showed you how to mic instruments and the best mics for them, along with little sound samples of the setup. It was like a bible for me but then CD-ROMs went away, that whole technology was vanquished and there went this great CD-ROM. So now with all this new technology such as phone apps, I went and found the person who controlled the rights to the CD-ROM, acquired them and hired Metal Sidecar along with Allen to make this amazing app. It shows all the microphones, their best use, their specs, along with instruments and instrument ranges. It’s really easy to use and I was just really compelled to make this available because I knew how useful it was to me. I thought that any musician, anybody who records anything would find really great value in this thing. So we did it and it’s out there.
Mick: Have you given any thought to other apps, such as teaching guitar lessons via phones and mobile devices?
Steve: I’ve considered it, a lot actually, but you got to pick your battles. Microphone Locker was a no-brainer, I didn’t really put much work in to it, I just made some deals and hired some people to do it. But for me to actually get in to building an app for a musical curriculum would be a lot of work right now when I’m mostly concerned about making music and touring.
Steve: That’s pretty much my new piece of gear. I’ve had a long standing relationship with Carvin and I’ve been so fortunate in this business because a lot of equipment manufacturers are willing and interested in building things around the things that I find very useful. I’ve used every kind of amp in the past but was looking for something more characteristic of the sounds I was hearing in my inner ear. So I wrote to Carvin and we came up with the Legacy I which took a year and a half of pretty intense focus. It was such a beautiful amp, but as things go, you want to continually try to evolve so some years after that we came out with the Legacy II. But there were things about the Legacy I that I was pining for. So in the Legacy III it’s more conventionally like the Legacy I, but it has an additional channel. Even though my music is very complicated I prefer very simple to use, obvious and practical gear. I’m not one of these guys that likes to impress myself with my own intellect on how to use this stuff, a lot of it’s like rocket science and I’m totally not interested in that. I just want to plug in and sound great, and to me, the Legacy III is a really great evolution of the two amps before it.
Steve: As a matter of fact once I get done with my tours here in America and Europe, I’m taking five months off and I’m composing a symphony for a Stravinsky festival that’s taking place in Holland in May 2013, which is the 100th anniversary of the performance of "The Rite of Spring". Then after that in June 2013, I’m going on a small tour with a Romanian orchestra through Eastern Europe. Then in July through probably February 2014 I’ll be on tour with my rock band hitting all the territories outside the US and Europe such as China, Hong Kong, Russia, Japan, South America, Australia, India, Africa, Dubai and Indonesia.
Steve: I wasn’t really sure what the effect on people would be, but the statistics show as a result of these games it’s actually inspired more people to go out and buy real guitars and play them. I think anything that causes people to have a good time is great as long as it doesn’t cause a murder.
Mick: You contributed a few songs such as "Speeding" to some of those games; did you have any creative input on the track itself as it appears in the game?
Steve: What you have to do is create these files called stems, which are basically mixes of the song with various instruments by themselves. I just sent them the various "stems" to them and they worked it out themselves. I don’t really seek these things out because there’s a lot of parameters involved in that stuff. If I have something in the can that they want to use I’m all for giving it to them but it’s a different world, the game world. I don’t really embrace it as much as I do going in to the studio and making something that’s totally me and then touring.
Steve: Favored Nations is pretty much the main label which I started around seventeen years ago in response to my objections on how conventional deals are set up for artists. I’ve always been interested in the music business, I like the music business. It’s all based on your perspective. There are a lot of creative people and you can really get involved in the process of making records, getting out there and marketing them. But I built the label for artists that are more musician oriented, that have confidence in what they do and are secure with their work. I’m not in to breaking big bands in radio or anything like that. The formula I put together is for musicians and based on making available distribution for artists that may only sell five or ten thousand records and giving them the opportunity to eat well for a while and make more music. But then the whole climate of the music industry changed and the whole model of the conventional major record label has changed with the advent of the internet and all. I’ve always been one of those guys who tries to look around the corner and get a jump on things. A lot of people complain about how digital sales have destroyed physical sales but there’s a lot more to it, a lot of great advantages to the way that we can distribute music digitally now, so I try to take advantage of all those things.
Steve: In a sense I agree, when I was a teenager in the Seventies, records were like prized possessions, you open it up, it was big, you poured over the artwork and it was really great. Then CDs came along and I felt a little let down because they weren’t big. The people that don’t know records and came up in to the CD world, that was their home. My kids don’t buy CDs at all, it’s all internet based for them. If you don’t know what you’re missing, then you’re not missing anything. They’re not interested in that stuff, they just want the music. And I think they’ve replaced the fetishing of artwork with other things, they go online and research the bands and it’s a whole plethora of information and art out there that they can get in to.
Mick: If the movie "Crossroads" were remade again today, would you want to be a part of that again?
Steve: (pause) Nah. I did it then and I really enjoyed it and I thought my contribution was appropriate. I still get people asking me about it and recognizing me from the movie. I shouldn’t say no, if it felt right I would probably do it if I thought it was interesting and exciting enough. In that film I played a very dark character and I got a lot of other offers to do other film stuff portraying similar characters. I didn’t really want to create that as sort of an identity to the public, you know?
Mick: Leave that to Gene Simmons right?
Steve: (laughs) Right on brother!
Steve: Thank you.