Here is the second part of our exclusive Steve Vai interview. This part contains questions from our readers and fans of Steve Vai. Read on to learn about his time spent meditating in a closet when he was younger, getting hit by a firework on stage and that time he got his ass kicked by the Karate Kid... all this and much more in part 2 of our interview!
BS: So next up we now have some questions from our audiences and fans of yours. there’s going to be some weird stuff here! Some normal ones and some pretty strange ones!
SV: Okay cool!
BS: So what was the first song you learned?
SV: The first song I learned was Dead Babies by Alice Cooper. It was a simple riff and I was a big Alice Cooper fan.
BS: Is there anything artistically you don’t think you’ve accomplished yet? Something like an acoustic album? Any collaborations you’d like to do you haven’t done yet?
SV: Well I’m extremely satisfied and grateful for everything I have accomplished, but as you know, it never ends. The desire to be creative as human beings, it never ends and through my life I’ve kept a list of projects that I’ve had in the back of my head that I would love to do some day, and when I was about 50 I realised it takes like a year to do a project and i had about 400 projects in my head. I had to start prioritising! And yes, there is a lot of projects that I would like to do, but then I realised that the important thing is that you’re enjoying what you’re doing right now. I’m doing that, and the thrill that I get out of something like Modern Primitive which was my last record. The thrill I get out of that is just as thrilling as if I’d done an acoustic record, which I’d love to do some day, or a record with a twelve piece horn band. A record with four percussionists. I have five symphonies recorded just sitting on my shelf that I need to finish one day. So yeah there’s loads and loads of stuff I’d love to do, but I’m satisfied with where I’m at right now.
BS: A lot of people see music as a kind of language. See it as an alphabet, or music compositions as literature. How did you learn to put your thoughts down in such a way? To create what you do?
SV: The process of being creative in the arts is different for everybody, because people have different inspirations and they have a pull to a different artistic aesthetic. But I will say this, there is one thing that's similar with all artists and all people, and that’s that there’s two levels to honing a craft or being an effective creator in any field. The first level is the period you have to go through to hone your craft, so if you’re a musician you practise your theory, you learn how things work, you listen to them, you understand the structure of it, you practise to get your technique to a certain point. In sport, it’s the same thing, you need to shoot that ball a thousand times. In business you need to understand the infrastructure of the business, how it works and what the economics of it are. It’s true with anything, but there comes a point where it requires more of your attention and your ability to absorb the academics of something. Your ability to develop your technique in anything is going to be based on how intensely you’re able to focus on anything that you’re learning. But then there’s the second level; if you enter the creative element and you’re only ever using this academic information, you’re never going to do something new, fresh, unique, inspired or effective. You’re just going to be recycling the same old numbers so to speak. So in order to have access to the other dimension - the second thing, which is your creative instincts, you have to go deeper than the technique.
That’s how I try to write my music. I have all the academic information, but I don’t rely on it for the soul of the music, because it has to come from somewhere else. So the way that I try to access this ‘dimension’ of stillness and presence that all of the good ideas come from, is you have to listen inside of yourself for the melody. If I go to write a song I try to listen inside for the melody.
I could theoretically create something based on how my fingers know which scales to play over what chords. So let’s look at one of my songs that my fans will know, For The Love of God. So one day I just picked up the guitar and played this chord and sang this melody over it *Steve proceeds to serenade us with a few bars from his track*. So right at the moment, I just listened inside and let the melody that belongs and wants to come out. Sometimes you have to fish around for the melody til you find it, but your inner ear knows when it’s right. When I compose a melody like that, it had nothing to do with music theory. I wasn’t thinking of anything, I was just listening to the melody unfold in my head. The academic information that I do have was useful, but not not as much! Knowing that information has nothing to do with the way you feel when you hear that melody. It’s all about your inner ear!
BS: That’s some great advice and a great way to approach anything creative. Okay then, let’s move on to you on tour. What’s your favourite kind of stage fan?
SV: Oh the kind that jump on stage and molest me!
BS: So not the kind of guy who sits at the back sipping a glass of water then? Any sort of wild or interesting experiences you’ve had with fans while playing?
SV: Well we’ve done this thing on tour before where we invite people up on stage and actually build a song with the band and it’s bizarre… It’s worked every time! I have them sing a drum beat, and Jeremy will play something, and a bass part and I’ll have them sing me a melody. I pull everything from 5 year old kids to older folk, men, women… and occasionally we get some pretty funny people! But it’s really difficult to pick to just one situation.
BS: And has there ever been a moment where you’ve been in danger? Any moment you’ve thought “uh-oh”?
SV: The first time I went to South America, I went to Argentina.
The fans there are just completely wild! Back then it was a whole different kind of thing. We had to have guards in front of the stage, even getting in and out of the hotel was difficult. So I had to be careful!
One time I was playing at this place and it was this tiny venue, and it was a low stage and people kept falling onto the stage! Another time, I was with David Lee Roth, someone threw a giant firework, was almost a stick of dynamite! It blew up in front of me in mid air and it completely blew me onto my back, and David was standing above me like “Bro! Bro! You okay?” and it’s funny because this happened twice! Some years later I was with Whitesnake and I was performing in the rain and I walked backwards with my triple neck heart guitar and i tripped on the monitor and went down. The guitar came down on top of me and I went out completely and then I opened my eyes and there’s another Dave standing over me! This time it was David Coverdale and he didn’t know he had his mic in front of him while he’s going “Steven darling! Steven darling, are you okay?!”
BS: It’s almost like you have an army of Dave guardian angels or something! Okay, so what profession do you think you would be in if not music?
SV: I don’t know… I’ve never thought of anything else. I’ve never been attracted enough to anything else. I like teaching though. When I was young I thought I would be a high school music teacher and I was very happy about that, because my high school music teacher was powerful and changed my life. I also like architecture, the idea of designing spaces and building them. But nothing compares to playing the guitar!
BS: Okay here’s an interesting one… what did it feel like to get your ass kicked by the Karate Kid in a guitar duel?
SV: Haha! That punk! I’m waiting for the return of Jack Butler and I’m gonna kick his lily white ass!
BS: Get a sequel in the works! Okay so someone has asked if you lived in a dorm in Berkley. If so, what was your room number and did you do acid there?
SV: I certainly did! I lived in the dorms in the main building, room 845... and I never took acid in my life! There were a lot of wild drugs going around at the time because all of the students at MIT would make drugs for the people of Berkeley. But nah I never got into the drugs thing. There’s the two buildings at Berkeley and there’s a street that connects them called Haviland Street. After I lived in the dorms I lived in one of the buildings there.
BS: Do you ever forget your songs when playing live? If so, how do you solve that? Can you easily pick up where you left off or do you have a brain fart?
SV: Oooh yes. I’ve had some serious trainwrecks where I’m looking going “what the heck is going on here? What am I playing?!” It’s kind of rare, but it does happen where I just completely space out. Sometimes I space out and I don’t even realise it and the band is just looking at me. After the show they’ll be like “Hey Steve you know you left out the first verse” or something. But it’s rare that I can’t get back on track. The only time it’s a real challenge is if I break a string or something.
BS: How quick are the people backstage at sorting that kind of stuff out? Are they always there, spare guitar in hand at the ready? Or do you normally have to throw abuse across the stage at them?
SV: All eyes are on me. The monitor guy is completely glued on me at all time. And Thomas, he has me in his peripheral vision, but he has to do other stuff like tune guitars and prep them. I change guitars a lot through the show because there’s certain guitars I like to use for certain songs, and even though the main guitars are Evo and Flo, if the song order requires one song to be with Evo and then one with Flo, or two with Evo and two with Flo, there’s a whole bunch of songs that have alternate tuning guitars. It’s not very often Thomas needs to watch me at all times, but yeah he needs to be aware of me because sometimes things go wrong that have nothing to even do with the guitar!
BS: Okay one last question from one of our readers: “I know you are vegetarian and that you have been practicing meditation. Are you still practicing meditation now? Please tell us more about your spiritual experiences. The song Dying For Your Love left such an enormous impression on me, I think that this is an outstanding composition in all senses of the word. As far as I understand, you described your spiritual experiences during meditation in this song. Did this really happen to you, or is this just pretty poetry, based on some of your spiritual experiences?
SV: Well that’s a very good question and I’m thrilled that that song stuck out, because in my entire catalogue that’s one of my most powerful songs. We all go through life and try to figure out what’s going on and I’ve always been one of these guys that’s wanted to know what really is going on, and I was a very intense young man at one point in my early 20’s. When I was 20/21 I went through a very difficult period mentally and it was beautiful, because from it, I was introduced to metaphysical concepts. There was this really great bookstore in Hollywood called the Bodhi Tree and in it was all of these fascinating books on religion, spirituality, pyramids, astrology, witchcraft… all this stuff, and I found things that brought me a lot of comfort so to speak. So during that period I was always interested in trying to find out what’s going on. One of these books I read, way back in like 82’ was Autobiography of a Yogi, a very popular inspirational book and from it I learned a bit about meditation.
I started meditating back then and I went through different meditational periods in my life where sometimes I would meditate two and a half hours a day in my closet, and I still do sometimes!
Over the years I had all these inspirational people I discovered, it completely reshaped my perspective and brought me a tremendous amount of peace that would require another whole long interview to cover that. But as far as the song Dying For Your Love, when I was at that early stage of intense mental trauma, I was really desperate for answers, and if you listen to lyrics of that song I was trying all kinds of things. I was starving myself, fasting… but that was for different reasons too. I was experimenting with different sleep states, sleep deprivation and all these different austerities because they push you to find a strength in yourself that you didn’t know was there. But it took going through them to realise they were unnecessary, because the true spiritual dimension is here and now. It’s right here and right now. You can’t strive for it and it’s available to everybody; You are the spiritual dimension! And that’s what I realised. But if you listen to that song, it’s a plea. I couldn’t have written that if I didn’t go through it.
...to be continued in chapter 3.
Special thanks to Igor Vidyashev and Neil Zlozower, great rock star photographers who helped us set up the interview with Steve Vai. Igor has given us the opportunity to post his exclusive pictures of Steve.
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