Steve Vai’s brain must be such an interesting place to explore. The music he creates from looking inside swirl around in a universe full of light and spirituality. From discovering keys on a piano at a very young age to falling under the spell of an electric guitar a few years later, Vai has taken transcendental meditation to an all-new arena. He kept his footing playing alongside the genius of Frank Zappa and the rock star egos of David Lee Roth and David Coverdale. He continues to explore the deepest of his nether regions to find soul and harmony but can also see inspiration in the flowers blooming in his garden and the lulling hum of bees. He is intelligent and funny, serious and self-revelatory. He takes time to look at what is, what has been and what will be. And he never thinks he is better than anyone else, although his musical compositions certainly reveal his talent to be so. “I think we all have interesting brains if you sit and talk to somebody long enough,” Vai says humbly when he called in recently to talk about his latest recording, The Story Of Light.
And so we enter the brain of Steve Vai, guitar shaman, lover of musical notes, to find the inspirations behind some of his latest songs, how he discovered music, his spirituality and why some of his fans won’t buy his new opus because of “John The Revelator.”
The Story Of Light is your latest CD. How long did it take you to put it together?
Well, it took me about a year and a half but I was distracted during that time with various other projects, but if I was to condense it all down to a day-to-day, I’d say it probably took about six months.
Did it take this long because you always seem to be out on the road?
These days, yeah, but this is my first full solo tour in five years, which is kind of ridiculous. My problem is I’m interested in so many things musically that I do various projects. My last studio record was in 2005 but I did tremendous amounts of stuff between that. I did a tour with a band and I released a DVD and I composed three symphonies, I did Alien Guitar Secrets Master Class tours, I did tours with Experience Hendrix and Dweezil Zappa. So I let my focus kind of wander a bit.
You took this old blues song by Blind Willie Johnson and you made it amazing. It’s like “John The Revelator” is the sin and then “The Book Of The Seven Seals” is like going to church the next morning.
(laughs) That’s an interesting analogy. I haven’t heard that one but I appreciate it.
So why pull that old song out and do what you did to it?
The funny thing is when an artist actually commits to recording something they usually have to be really excited about the idea and that’s what I look for. I’m kind of compelled by my own excitement. So for me there is a lot of different dynamics and styles in my music because I get excited about a lot of different things. So when I heard that Blind Willie Johnson version of “John The Revelator,” I was enamored with it. It was so raw and so beautiful and had so much mojo to it. I was hearing it in my head with these huge guitars and a really intense vocal performance. Then because the record is sort of an installment of a concept, I was taking some, I guess you might say Broadway liberties. And I was hearing this in my head, this piece that just evolved into this absolute throw-down gospel over-the-top section, you know. And that’s “The Book Of The Seven Seals.”
I wanted to do something that had a lot of contrast to it so the arrangement of “The Book Of The Seven Seals” choir is almost hokey sounding, very clean (starts singing “John The Revelator.”) And I thought that was a great contrast to the deep mojo of the first part of the song. So that’s why I put them together and after I finished recording “John The Revelator” I needed a singer. I like to sing, you know, but I know my limitations and if I was to try to sing that song I probably would have destroyed it (laughs). So I put my radar out for a singer and oddly enough, you know the universe will provide, and the day after I finished the track, I was hosting an event for the Academy, NARAS – the Grammy folks – and they had all these performers and Beverly McClellan was on the bill and she just took to the stage and just absolutely floored me. She was so in touch with that special thing and I said, there’s my singer for “John The Revelator.” But I had no idea if she’d be interested or not so I approached her and oddly enough she knew who I was and she knew my music and she liked the track and said, “Yeah, I’ll do this,” and she just killed it. She did such a great job.
It’s like those two songs are one big long piece.
Well, they were originally one piece. The whole thing was “John The Revelator” but I thought it would be a good idea to split them for various reasons. And it worked.
It’s very powerful.
(laughs) You’d be surprised how polarized my fans are on it, cause my fans, a big percentage of them, just want to hear me play guitar on instrumental guitar tracks. And some of them are more interested in the more dense compositional stuff and some of them are interested in the vocal stuff. They’re pretty polarized. I’ve read some reviews where people said the reason they won’t buy the record is because of “John The Revelator” and “The Book Of The Seven Seals.” But then the press is saying it’s one of my finest works. So it’s very interesting.
People have likes and dislikes and they can become very adamant and very territorialized. And if they really love an artist, they really hate it when an artist does something they don’t like. And that’s some people, that’s not the majority. The majority of my fanbase knows that when I do something, they are in for something that is a surprise and they like that, they relish that. Some people only want to hear one thing and that’s fine.
I’m always curious how when a musician does instrumental pieces, he titles those pieces. Because when you have a so-called regular song, you have the words that will find you a title whereas in instrumentals the feelings are telling you the titles. So is it easy to name your pieces?
You know, it varies. Sometimes I come up with names first. Then I conjure up in my mind an audio image of what the title means. And sometimes I record a song based on certain melodic instincts and then I listen to the song and let the song tell me what the title is. Pick any song on the record and I can tell you how I came up with the title.
Ok, “The Moon & I.”
Ok, alright, there’s a very interesting story to that and it’s kind of esoteric and kind of personal but I’ll tell you. You know we go through different phases in our life and when I was a young man, between the ages of twenty to twenty-one and a half or twenty-two, I was not in a very good mental state. I went through a great depression, sort of like a dark night of the soul, and I don’t know why. I think it had to do with maybe my soul fighting with my ego or something. But it was a very, very depressed period and when you’re young and you’re going through a depression, you feel like you’re all alone and you’re losing your mind and all this crazy stuff. I hit a real low and you may not have noticed because it was something that was very personal. But during that, I would have these dreams and there were these moments of bliss and euphoria. I can’t really explain those either but in these dreams, and they were very lucid you know and everything was extremely vivid, and this one reoccurring thing happened probably four or five times where I found myself actually in a setting that seemed like it was space. But everything was very clear and I just had this feeling of complete joy and complete euphoria. And what I was seeing was these giant-like planets and moons and suns and galaxies. And I was in this completely different space. And “The Moon & I,” the lyrics are reflective of those frames of mind that were extremely important in the resurrection of my mental, physical and spiritual health. And there you have it. I know it’s kind of deep (laughs)
“Creamsicle Sunset” definitely conjures up a 70’s vibe for me.
Yeah and that’s funny too. When I grew up, I grew up on the East Coast and you used to get these ice creams called Creamsicles and they were really good. They were sherbet with like cream on the inside and they were really flavorful. I was thinking about these Creamsicles (laughs) and I don’t know if you’ve ever seen a sunset in Hawaii but the way the sun sets in Hawaii is very, very different than anyplace else I’ve seen in the world. Must be because it’s the South Pacific and the sky is really clear. But when the sun sets in Hawaii, it’s like this explosion of these beautiful colors and they’re very vivid and it’s like you see these streaks of cream and orange and blue. So I was trying to mix in my mind what it would sound like, what that sunset would sound like and
what it would taste like (laughs). And that’s how I came up with that song. Do you remember how they tasted?
I do and they were so good. Now I’m going to have to go out and find one.
I’ll tell you what you do: Go and get one and watch a video of the sunset in Hawaii, eat the Creamsicle and listen to “Creamsicle Sunset.” You’ll have a little Creamsicle sunset hernia (laughs)
The cover of your album is very interesting. It has a lot of pinks and reds; happy and tranquil but a little mysterious
Yeah, when I did my last studio record, Real Illusions, in 2005, I had a storyline that I wanted to sort of express over a series of records and I wanted to marry it to a visual. So I found this artist, and her name is Andrea Cobb, and she is really inspired. I look at her art and I feel uplifted and feel really good. She did the Real Illusions art and then I went to her for The Story Of Light cover art. I told her what I was thinking and then we went back and forth and she came up with this beautiful artwork.
When did you discover your spiritual side? A lot of people can go through life and never find that place in themselves but yet your music has always had touches of that spiritual plane in it.
Thank you. I think that we all kind of are in touch to a degree with our spiritual side, whether we know it or not. The mind is very different from the spirit. The mind is kind of the tool that we use in the world but we get trapped in the mind, we identify with who we are through the way we think. Like things happen in our life, we go through experiences, sometimes they’re good and sometimes they’re bad and sometimes they’re tragic and sometimes they’re great. And we develop an identity for ourselves based on the way we think about our past and the experiences we’ve gone through. And we become so identified with the mind noise that we don’t see the forest for the trees. And I think when I went through that depression I was telling you about, I identified with the mind and the ego and I needed to find that space. And sometimes you have to hit rock bottom before you identify with the idea that we’re really spirit having a human experience and not humans having a spiritual experience. It’s a gradual process and we’re all at different stages of becoming more in touch with our core spiritual being, the spiritual element I should say. The core spiritual element is not independent, it runs through everybody, it’s the same thing. One of the biggest problems we have in the world is that we think we’re separate from each other. That’s the mind that does that. Discovering your spiritual nature is the process of looking at the mind as an observer and then you realize who’s observing it and that’s really the spirit. I know it sounds kind of difficult to follow and a little esoteric but you asked (laughs)
Then whenever we go into that creative element which we all have, we usually gravitate to the thing that is most interesting to us and for me and for my life, I’ve always been really, really interested in music. It’s just been something that has been very natural for me. My interest in music has led me to great study in music because I’m fascinated with notation and orchestration and composition. So I’ve really made a great study and I’ve become pretty good at it, or at least good at understanding it. But in the other side, the majority of my focus through life has been trying to find that spiritual equilibrium. So my brain mixes these things together and that’s how I get the music I get.
Where did you grow up?
I grew up on Long Island. I was a teenager in the seventies so I got all that great progressive rock music like Led Zeppelin and Deep Purple and Jimi Hendrix and that kind of stuff; Creamsicles you know (laughs)
What was it about music that grabbed you first?
When I was very young, I must have been about four years old, my aunt had this funny looking thing in her living room that had these black and white keys on it. But I remember one day I went up to it and I hit a note and I realized that if you go to the right, the notes get higher. If you go to the left, they get lower. And I immediately had this epiphany and I realized what music was and it was very clear to me, it was very clear when I heard something, oh, this is where those notes are and it’s being played by that instrument; then it became very clear to me that you can construct any kind of musical situation you want by just arranging these notes and these ideas and stuff. So that aspect of music was always very natural to me and that was the first thing that really lit me up. Then when I was in kindergarten, I saw a kid playing a guitar, playing electric guitar. He was in like third grade or something, which when you’re in kindergarten, the third grader is like a god, you know (laughs). And if he’s playing the electric guitar, that’s even more better, so I immediately identified with the guitar.
Was it easy for you to learn how to play guitar?
It was a thrill, you know, because to me the juice was picking up the guitar and not being able to play something and then working on it and then all of a sudden being able to play it. You get this feeling of achievement, you get this feeling of dignity; it makes every day like Christmas. So that was my addiction.
I was talking with Orianthi a while back and she said that when she was very young she sent you tapes and that you didn’t just tell her, this sounds great or this sounds bad, you gave her encouragement and criticism and she holds you in very high regard for doing that and taking the time to do that.
I’ve known her since she was fifteen. She’s like my younger daughter or something (laughs). And she is a very close friend. But I recognized in her immediately a person that had a passion for what they were doing, even when she was fifteen, so you almost feel like it’s a responsibility to do your best to try to support and encourage people that have a special gift like that.
The fact that she was a girl didn’t mean anything really because there was a lot of novelty kind of playing in the world. I’d seen eight year old guitarists that can play concertos and stuff or “Eruption” or something like that. But there’s a difference between somebody that picks up an instrument and has an identification with it on an academic level or a passionate level; and she was obviously passionate. You could just tell that she loved the instrument and she’s a great gal, a real sweetie, and I feel blessed to have the relationship I’ve had with her. When she was young and kind of discovering herself, she’d send me tapes and I’d send her back thoughts and some equipment now and then. I just knew she was going to turn into something cause she had that fire.
She definitely has that passion. She talks about playing guitar like maybe you would talk about one of your children.
And that’s the sign of greatness
You’ve written full symphonies. Where do you even start to do something like that?
You have to find what’s interesting to you and then it becomes easy. And for me written music looked beautiful, it looked like art. It was like a secret language and I wanted to understand it and I wanted to be able to write it, wanted to be able to control instruments with it. So it was very easy in a sense. It was natural, you know. A lot of things are not natural to me. Like if my wife goes into the kitchen, she’ll take ingredients and she’ll mix them together naturally without a recipe and make something that tastes really good. If I did that you’d choke, you know (laughs).
So it’s just like learning a language. It’s like if I decided that I really liked Russian and I wanted to be able to speak it fluently and really communicate with people in Russian, nothing is going to stop you, and that’s the way it was with me for music. And my passion for composition was profound. I wrote my first orchestra score when I was in high school, in tenth grade, and I’ve written many orchestra pieces, orchestra records that I’ve released, and I’ve written several symphonies, and in January I’m taking off six months to write another symphony. It’s just a brain muscle that you got to exercise. A lot of people are intimidated by the mechanics of composition but it’s really like anything else. You just study it and then you understand it.
So you’ll be out on the road through the end of the year?
Yes, I will be working right up to Christmas and then I take off for six months and then I kick off in July of next year and tour for probably another six to eight months.
Sounds like your life
Yep, it’s a good one (laughs)
If you were one of the many kids who grew up watching The Monkees on television, whether in it’s original airing in the 1960’s or it’s repeat days in the late-80’s on MTV, then you will enjoy next week’s MY ROOTS with Micky Dolenz.