From bees to aliens (part III)
Interview with Steve Vai. Part 3

Hello there! This is the third and the last part of the interview with Steve Vai. Legendary musician tells us about his family, his opinion about modern music and money!

BS: Okay, so we’re going to move on now to some questions focussed more around your own personal views on a variety of things in life such as money, your home life, the broader music industry in general and we may even touch on bees!

SV: Oh I do love my bees! Okay let’s go.

BS: So what do you think about the Electronic Dance Music (EDM) market? There’s an opinion that this market is oversaturated and should burst like a bubble, but it just keeps on growing.

SV: I have a 25 year old son, his name is Fire and he’s very much into the electronic music and the EDM stuff. He has a great taste in music, so that’s how I get to hear a lot of this stuff and it’s very interesting to see these DJ’s emerge and become rock stars in their own way. The stage shows that they have now are really interesting and cool, so it’s just a different kind of concert experience for a lot of people, and I think that’s fine. I’ve been to a bunch of raves and to these places where they have DJ’s and huge sound systems, and I think it’s an incredible experience! I love that.

BS: And what do you think about the actual market itself? Do you think it’ll keep growing bigger and bigger? Or is it just a question of time before it dies?

SV: Well if what happens to EDM is the same thing that happens to most other genres, it’s big now, and it could get much much bigger, but eventually something different will come along. EDM may still be popular, but it’ll wain a bit. And that’s just the way it usually goes. I don’t know if that’s the way it’ll go though, if anything, it’s going to get bigger if I had to guess, but eventually something new will come along. It always does, and EDM will become ‘unhip’ with the masses.

BS: So with EDM, how do you think it will affect the future of guitar? If at all?

SV: There’s a lot of people that love the guitar for different reasons, and the guitar is the kind of instrument that can be applied to virtually any style of music. I haven’t heard a lot of guitar in EDM music. I’d love to do something with guitars and EDM, but I’m just uncomfortable with doing something that sounds too… trendy. I like EDM music, it’s very trendy but all the sounds they use are just going to be obsolete and embarrassing some day! That’s fine though because that’s the way it usually is. There’s people who love the guitar for different reasons. Some people love classical guitar, and EDM isn’t going to change that. Rock, blues… EDM isn’t going to change that. I think EDM could create an opening for a particular type of opening for guitar playing, I just haven’t heard anyone do it yet!

BS: Some of the beginners in the music industry are afraid that they don’t have enough to reach the top, and this fear can limit their growth. What do you think about Nature vs. Nurture, the line between what you had from the birth and what you can achieve with effort?

SV: Hmm, well that’s kind of a loaded question, because you’re talking about what people come into the world with. As I was mentioning before, there’s two levels. There’s the technique, which some people really love and they have a brain that’s able to understand very complex things. But then there’s the other dimension, which is the inspiration, getting in touch with your instincts and your creative side. Every artist has to find the balance between how much technique they need to get their creative thoughts out. Like for instance, Bob Dylan doesn’t need a lot of guitar technique to get his point across. Jeff Beck does, and neither of them are right or wrong, they just have to find that balance. So people come into the world with different tools, different strengths, different weaknesses. Some have a great capacity for technology and technique and are not very creative, but that’s okay. Some people are very creative but don’t have enough technique to get their point across. You really have to balance the two, and whatever you come into the world with, you can strengthen your weaknesses. Life is a good opportunity to strengthen your weaknesses before you go into your next life and you maybe take aspects of those strengths and weaknesses with you and maybe that’s why people come into the world with different sets of tools. 

BS: And what about those who are afraid of reaching the top based on this?

SV: The best way to reach the top, is to not worry about it! If you don’t worry about reaching the top there’s nothing to be afraid of. People create this idea in their head, that in order to be successful you have to reach the top, and that’s very very different from passion. What it takes to reach the top, is a deep passion and understanding and excitement for what you do. The top just suddenly appears. If you’re striving to reach the top and you’re struggling and you’re competing, that’s no life.

When you get there you’ll be just as miserable! It might be good for a little while, but it never lasts, because if you’re striving to be at the top, that’s an egoic desire. There’s never enough fame, there’s never enough money, there’s never enough love… So if you take a relaxed approach, don’t worry about the top! The only person you should compete with is yourself. 

You need to find the thing inside of you that you find the most exciting to do. Okay, let’s say you were already successful, you didn’t even need a job and you had 100 million dollars  in the bank and there was no one left to compete with and all your dreams have been fulfilled… What do you do now? What you would probably do is those things that are very creatively fulfilling to you.

You just find what you love and you just do that, because you don’t have to be at the top, you don’t have to be wealthy or famous to do exactly what you want to do that excites you. And here’s the secret... That’s probably what you’re going to be most successful of! it’ll make you feel good that you’re being creative in your own unique way. That trumps and transcends being famous and making money, take it from me! Anyone famous will tell you that the fame and money is not ‘it’. Real success is when you find your own creative voice, and you bring things into the world through it. It’s especially nice when other people resonate with what you do. The energy you feel when creating that music flows into it. The appropriate audience for you will respond to that. Never paint yourself into a corner as something that you’re not, because it never works. Don’t worry about being at the top and you’ll have no fear!

BS: What do you think about the radio format for music and its general role nowadays? With Youtube and other internet resources now, is radio becoming redundant?

SV: Radio isn’t redundant yet... I hope it is some day! It’s still a very powerful format for breaking artists and there’s a whole infrastructure in place. But I think you’re right, I think it might be waning at some point because people are getting tired of commercials and the kind of things that interrupt their listening. I like internet radio and satellite radio. Satellite radio plays some of my music, but the conventional celestial radio that you get in your car for example… getting your music on that radio is criminal what have you to do. No literally, it’s criminal. It’s against the law! And it’s a whole different world from the world that I function in. I like listening to some radio. For me though it’s an odd world that I could never really break.

BS: You have a lot of cool pictures and pay so much attention to the visual side of the creation. Yet you don’t make expensive music videos. Why?

SV: They’re too expensive! I’ve focussed more on concert videos, I would like to make some actual music videos though. I feel like I’ve got some cool ideas, but for me to make one it would take a couple hundred thousands of dollars to produce. I could put it on Youtube and that would be nice, but unless it’s something powerfully unique, it’s a little out of range. But thank you for reminding me though to look into this again! It’s just a matter of making the dollars and the sense add up. 

BS: You have such cool visuals as a person, from your guitars to your style in general. It’s all so unique! But then you get to the videos...

SV: It is definitely something I’ve wanted to do… you know what? I might actually do it now. I’m motivated again! Thank you.

BS: Do you receive any invitations from any pop stars to collaborate with them on yours or separate songs? Like Nuno Bettencourt who plays with Rihanna?

SV: In the earlier years (80’s/90’s) there were big pop stars that wanted me to work with them, and now it’s people from around the world who want me to do a little solo or something. Occasionally I do it, but I have to really like it or it has to be a friend of mine. Recently I just did 3 little projects with Sterling, and I have this fan in Australia, this little kid I’ve been friends with since he was 3 years old. He’s this amazing kid, now he’s old enough and making his own records, and I recorded a little solo for him! A wicked one at that too… And I recently got asked to work with my friend C.J. Vanston who’s working on a record with Harry Shear from Spinal Tap. He’s making this hilarious record and C.J. asked me to play on it so I did that. But if somebody comes to me that I don’t know, it’s usually pretty expensive to get me to do it, and unless I really like it I don’t do it.  

BS: I want to ask about you as a singer. Do you practise singing a lot? Does it help you to feel melodic lines you are playing? If a guitarist can sing, can singing help them be a better player?

SV: Well there’s two aspects to singing. There’s your pitch as a musician in your ear, and then there’s the quality of the voice. Well there’s three actually, there’s your attitude and confidence too. You don’t need a good ear, or even a good voice if you have intense charisma and confidence. I can name a lot of singers who fall into that category! If you have a really good ear and a good voice, that may not be enough. You need that kind of balance. So as a guitarist, is it important to be able to sing? No, not at all. Is it important to be able to hear what you’re playing? Yes, that’s vital. Being able to develop your ears is vital. So being able to sing what you’re playing is very important. I like singing, I like my voice, despite it being limited. It only works on certain things, but I’m not really interested in doing a lot of singing live because it’s too complicated for me!

BS: And do you use any kind of vocal/pitch corrector when playing live?

SV: No, it’s all 100% me!

BS: I remember the beautiful and brave Yo-Yo-Gakk song with your son Julian’s voice. Can you tell us more about your sons? What are they up to? Sometimes it’s not easy to find your own way when you have such an incredible such as yourself!

SV: Well being an incredible father is kind of two-fold. My achievements in the world are very accomplished in a sense, but what whether I’m an incredible father or not, you have to ask them!

BS: Let’s line up a second interview with them! Get the sons on next!

SV: Yeah, call Julian and Fire! We have a very tight family, very much love each other. But they’re not interested in playing instruments. They just see me as ‘Dad’. They recognize me as a professional and they get a kick out of that, but I’ve always told them they need to find what they enjoy doing. It doesn’t matter what it is; If you enjoy it, you’ll have an easier life. Julian is studying in the medical field at the moment and is an ultra-sound engineer.

BS: So still kind of to do with sound in a sense!

SV: My other son Fire is working as a temp in a video store where he is assistant managing. But he is also very much into music publishing. He’s been studying it which is a pretty vast field, and I help out with my knowledge.

BS: Such a cool name… What was the inspiration behind Fire?

SV: Billy Sheehan had a friend named Fire, but it was only his nickname. I always thought that was really cool, and I thought if I had a son I want to call him Fire. I had a lot of opposition though! So his actual name was Keenan Fire Vai, but we called him Fire and then when he was 12 and realised his first name was Keenan on his birth certificate, he was a little upset about that. He requested that we legally change his name to Fire and he really likes it.

BS: So what about your wife, Pia. Is she still playing bass?

SV: No, not anymore. Pia’s just this miraculous person. We’ve been together for 38 years now, and she just does all these wonderful life things and she has a 7 year cycle. She’ll do something intensely for 7 years and then get really good at it… then move onto something else. She played bass for 7 years and enjoyed it, but then got into cooking. She got really into that and cooked all amazing things. She’s just worldly, she’s intuitive, she’s funny and much smarter than me! After that she started making clothes, and then became a 2nd degree black belt in taekwondo. She then got into the harp and now she’s into travel. She’s actually a travel agent for high-end trips. She just knows how to live life, and I’m just in my studio the whole time playing the guitar!

BS: So she’s possibly had the more interesting life out of the two of you after all!

SV: Exactly! She’s actually skiing at the moment in Montana. She’s like “you can sit in the studio all day, I’m going skiing”

BS: In Russia, many families have a tradition to play guitar and sing for friends. Are you doing the same with your family?

SV: We have a particular group of friends that we love hanging out with and they love that kind of thing. I’ll occasionally play, but they know the way I play and what I’m good at doesn’t really work at parties! I’m like you give me an acoustic guitar and I immediately turn into an invalid!

BS: Your deep and boundless inner world can be felt in every song you play. Sometimes I think that you are so unique mostly because of your work with your mind and consciousness. Can you share with us your secrets how to develop your inner world?

SV: Everybody uses their consciousness. You ARE consciousness! 99% of you is invisible. The way I view my creative process throughout the years has changed, and it’s the same way that I view the creative process in anybody. For me, when I get an idea it has an energy about it and there’s a pull. Something might say “okay you’re going to write a symphony, and you’re going to play the guitar, but you’re only going to play one note, with a sustainer through the whole thing, while the symphony is going mad” and that was such a compelling idea. At face value somebody would say “Why are you going to do that? There’s no fame in that, no money” but it was so compelling that I didn’t have a choice.

So for instance, when I made the record Flexible, which was my first solo record, I had no expectations, I didn’t care what the world thought of it. It was my own little secret. When you have that perspective, there’s an opening to do whatever you want, because it doesn’t matter, nobody cares! That’s a really precious perspective.

 From it, comes your true creative intentions, because there’s nothing to lose. If that wasn’t the case, I wouldn’t have recorded Little Green Man, or Salamanders in the Sun, or anything from that record for that matter. To do this day, I love it. It’s a bedroom record so to speak, but it’s great.

Then I went and did all this big rock star stuff. From then on I’d always go back to that same place in my mind. I never wanted to do anything too conventional. I had my favourite guitarists who I held on pedestals, but I wanted to do my own thing. I can’t really tell you what’s at the core of my creativity, but if I had to say, it’s just my own personal interests, which I mix with all this technical information and all of my spiritual background and I get the music I get. But it’s the same with everybody, we all have our own spiritual background and understanding of the self. Playing has to make me feel a certain way, that ‘aha!’ moment. I like that, that’s cool. That’s your best friend and that’s what you should be searching for.

BS: I remember in Russia, in 1995, during the Alien Love Secrets tour you were very health conscious and even brushed your teeth with mineral water. Can you tell us about your mode of life? Are you still vegetarian or vegan?

SV: David Lee Roth, he was very into his exercising and he really inspired me to find the value in exercising and that was one of the great things I got from him. It stayed with me my whole life. I’ve been a vegetarian for 35 years, and it just works for me. Everyone has to find whats right for them. This may sound pretty crazy, but I don’t think it matters what you eat or how you exercise. How you feel about what you eat is what matters. Find what your emotional equilibrium is. If you’re a happy person, chances are you’re going to be healthy. You’ll know what to eat because you’re in touch with yourself and your body. But if you’re not in touch you can eat all sorts of crap! I do like the occasional bit of junk food, McDonalds ice cream are awesome! And it seems to be good all around the world no matter where you go!

BS: You are a famous beekeeper. Did you know that the former mayor of Moscow was crazy about bees too? This hobby probably helped him to de-stress himself because he was one of the richest and most powerful people in Moscow. What about you? Do you think that bees are a separate civilization or are you just addicted to honey?

SV: Both! Bees are incredibly fascinating little creatures. I know way too much about bees! It’s a surprisingly simple hobby though, because the bees do all the work. I just found it fascinating and I got into it because when we moved into this property, it had been vacant for 10 years. I wanted to plant some fruit trees and my wife wanted these gardens, and after doing some research I found that honey bees are actually pretty easy. And they make honey! It’s a fantastic moment to be with nature, I just love doing it. I can understand how the mayor of Moscow being rich and powerful would find a lot in relief in tending to the bees. There’s nobody judging you, you’re with nature and the bees are very connected. And if you’re not connected they’re going to sting the shit out of you! But definitely try it, it’s great.

BS: Okay so our next question is about money. Can you tell us what money means to you? There are lots of stories where famous musicians suddenly become bankrupt, including stories where the record label’s appetites are to blame for it. Are you reinvesting your earnings? Do you have any ideas to share with us?

SV: My perspective on money has changed through the years. When I look back through my life, there’s one thing I did that I’d like to share with musicians that I think can be very helpful. In the life of a musician your income can become a little bit crazy. Sometimes you’re doing very well, sometimes there’s a struggle. It was similar for me. I used to believe that I needed money to feel secure, but that’s an illusion. So one thing I would recommend, that worked really well for me, and it’s a great secret to financial stability, is to just live a little bit below your means. What I mean by that, is if you’re earning $250 a week for example, figure out a way to live on that, but only live on $240 a week. Live on that, and put away 10% of every dollar that comes in. It builds up!

I don’t know why, but I’ve always had great luck when it came to finances. I’ve made some great decisions and terrible ones. I’ve lost millions of dollars doing stupid things, but I’ve also made some smart decisions too. But the best financial advice I can give a musician first and foremost, is to not worry. 

It won’t help, and it’ll only make things worse. Worrying about money will get in the way of your ability to make money due to stress. I never worried about money, and you’ll be surprised how little you really need to get by.

All I needed was a good musical idea and I was wise that with any money I made, I always put a little aside, as it was something I would have later. Also, don’t ever give up your publishing! A lot of musicians are intimidated by the business and you don’t need to be, the business is there for you! It’s there to serve you and it can serve you really well. So as far as money goes, and deals and contracts… don’t be intimidated and develop your high-quality “no”. What I mean by that, is if something doesn’t feel right to you, just say no. The biggest detriment to any musician that I see through the years is desperation and panic. That cuts right at the root of your beautiful experience with your band, your audience, your friends.

BS: Yeah this goes back to what you said before about not trying to reach the top, you need to try and detach yourself from that. It can overtake your creativity and your passion is clouded by fame and money which gets in the way.

SV: Yeah and there was a time in my life where I was extremely competitive in my head, and it just snuck up on me. When everybody is telling you you’re great and you’re winning these awards, there’s this tendency to start believing you’re something special. But it never works, because there’s never enough for the ego. Eventually someone else is going to be number 1, and you’re going to be number 36. That’s going to be a lot of suffering if you’ve made an identity for yourself. It’s nice when it happens, to be recognised, but there’s always people that don’t like it and they need assert their opinions. I’ve had some really harsh criticisms at times and it’s fine now. It doesn’t matter to me. 

BS: What bands and artists are at the top of your playlist at the moment? What kind of music are you currently listening to? 

SV: Ok let me look…. Steve Vai, Steve Vai, Steve Vai… Only joking! On my playlist there’s some staple music, like every Tom Waits CD. I don’t go anywhere without him. Also Allan Holdsworth record and Frank Zappa. There’s some contemporary classical composers I like very much too.

BS: Steve, let us thank you very much for this amazing conversation.  Let us wish you peace and happiness to you and your family. All our love and respect and thank you for making this world a better place!

SV: Thank you guys, same back to you. It’s been a pleasure.

Konstantin Korsakov
 and Adam Jessop (Backstage Secrets)

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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