The Steve Vai Interview
When it comes to guitar slingers, Steve Vai is definitely one of a kind. A graduate from the school of Frank Zappa, his credibility could only go up from there, and it did as he enjoyed colorful stints with David Lee Roth and Whitesnake. But it’s as a soloist, beginning with the release of Flex-Able in 1984, where the guitarist has been able to raise the bar on his craft and artistry. All of the solo albums have been written, produced, and engineered by Vai, which goes to show you how hands-on he is. He’s also appeared as a guest artist on more than 40 albums and created music for films, video games, sports teams, corporations, you name it. When it comes to laying down tracks, everything is considered and nothing is off limits.
In recent years, Vai has teamed up with other guitarists on package tours, like G3 with Joe Satriani and Experience Hendrix. His latest joint venture, Generation Axe, is a little different in that Vai and each of the four other players — Zakk Wylde, Yngwie Malmsteen, Nuno Bettencourt, and Tosin Abasi — play their own sets before the five come together and start, to paraphrase Robert Fripp, “shredding the wallpaper.” As Vai tells me in the following interview, this is something entirely new and different he’s dreamt of doing for years. For a guy popping with ideas, constantly in motion, redefining the instrument and continuing to push the envelope as a virtuoso guitarist, visionary, composer and producer, you could say Steve Vai is fulfilling every dream he’s ever had. And possibly some he’s yet to have.
So let’s get into Generation Axe. Besides you, you got Zakk Wylde, Yngwie Malmsteen, Nuno Bettencourt, and Tosin Abasi. Can you tell me a little about how this show came together and talk a little about what fans can expect to see and hear?
It's sort of fantasy that I've had for quite some time. When I was a teenager I was a big fan of Queen. Brian May is just a master at hearing guitars, to create this orchestra of beauty you know, and I thought how cool it would be to have like five guitar players on stage doing something like this where the guitars are orchestrated, so to speak. And then so many jamming situations with other guitar players and they have all been great for the most part. but nothing like so when an idea comes to mind compelling you find yourself all a sudden in a few cooperative components of the universe on your radar so to speak. So the idea was bubbling up and it just got to a peak and right at that point I got this call from Miles Copeland who's interested in sponsoring some kind of guitar festival and I gave him my idea and he was into it so we partnered up and I wrote a list of these categories of guitar genres — rock, metal, blues, fusion, acoustic — with all my favorite guitar players under the headings and I thought, “Ooh, which one should I go for?”
Virtually my top five ideas what I really thought would resonate with this they were all into it. So the idea was to create a show where each player has their own set with their own music and then maybe they do a song with another person and come together to create a Brian May vision, where we play some classic rock songs that are organized and arranged. So when people came in there was a little bit of question mark over their head, “How we doing this, how's this going to work.” Once it started to gel, I mean to tell ya, the sound and the concept, the question marks turned into light bulbs and people got so excited, showing enthusiasm for what we are doing for right now. It's so cool it's turning out so much better than we thought.
You’ve done other tours featuring multiple guitarists, like G3 and Experience Hendrix, this sounds to me like it could be more conceptual? I mean something more, little more realized. Would that be a fair statement? What distinguishes Generations Axe from these others?
There are similarities in that. You get to see great guitar players just doing their thing and you also get to see them trading licks, you know, trading solos, so to speak. Everybody solos and passes the torch. One of the things you'll see at this show that I've never been a part of — when we come together as an ensemble to play organized pieces of music, you know what I mean? That's the difference.
What sort of challenges do you face in playing with other guitarists and trying to orchestrate something like this?
Blending, but it’s a beautiful challenge because you have to listen with ears that are controlled by very completely different brain muscles than when you are just jamming. If we're performing a relatively intricate passage, you have to listen to everybody else; you have to become sort of present, very present with what's happening around you. It's like if you’re singing with five people or two people you’re listening to the other person while you’re focused on what you’re doing and you become in a sense, one with them, so that's a challenge because it's a different headspace for what we're used to. Nuno has a lot of experience at it because he's a great singer and he sings with harmonies and stuff with people so he gets that. But doing it with five guitars — it's a whole different texture.
Yeah, I can imagine. How would you assess each of the guitarists that are part of the Generation Axe tour?
Everyone has made valuable contribution. Every one of them is fiercely confident in what they do. They’re not looking to the next guy to steal riffs or something like that to inspire. You take someone like Zakk Wylde who he's just a meat and bones of Rock guitar playing. When you hear him let loose it's like a ton of shittin’ bricks man you know, it's just amazing, this wall of intensity and then you get Yngwie Malmsteen and I mean, he's a legend you know, he pioneered a particular way of playing that no one has been able to touch and his harmonic and melodic instincts were totally unique at the time he came out and then he set the trend for that. So you know his contribution is immeasurable.
And then Nuno, you know, it's not the right word underrated because so many people do know how what a formidable player he is you know Occasionally you get guys that are just really great players but they can be overshadowed by their own hit songs you know, so I always knew Nuno to be a great player, and working with him I've come to realize that he's so gifted on so many levels. He has really great ears, he's eager, he's intuitive, and that's a real plus in a situation like this.
But I wanted also it to have a flavor really new and unique. There's this whole subculture of a guitar players that have continued to raise the bar on the technical abilities of the instrument, and Tosin shines in that field for me, head over heels, because not only is his technical ability on the instrument pretty astonishing — but its unique, his music is unique. Animals As Leaders is his band, and what they create is sort of like trying to mix fusion- metal in a very organic way it's not like he's trying to take fusion and mix it with metal, it's just naturally inherent of the kind of music that comes out of his head so there's his contribution adds a flavor that creates a nice zest.
With each of these players having such a unique style, I would guess you bring all that together and it creates a very interesting sound.
For the person sitting in the audience, you have to see each of the guys doing their thing, and then when we come together, it’s everybody's tone blending. It is a unique experience to hear that.
Looks like after the Generation Axe tour, you’re off to Europe for solo and G3 shows. Any plans to take Generation Axe there?
It's something that we hope for right now it’s kind of like let's get on tour here and get a few weeks under our belt and see how strong our sea legs are. I have very good expectations for that. The challenge is getting everybody's schedule together. This took a year and a half to get everybody slotted in because all these guys are you know are really busy. Every one of us has records coming out and tours that are booked. Zakk just got off of the tour and the next day he's in rehearsal. After this tour I have one and the next day I get back I'm in rehearsals for Passion & Warfare 25th Anniversary Tour that I'll be doing where I'm playing the whole Passion & Warfare record, which is a challenge within itself. Also with Passion & Warfare, I'm releasing a record called Modern Primitive, which is music that I had written and recorded back before Passion & Warfare. It's sort of like it's a missing link between my first solo record and my second solo record. So yeah, I am pretty busy with that.
Last November, you, Billy Sheehan, Gregg Bissonette and David Lee Roth were about to come together for a reunion during the Ultimate Jam Night at the Lucky Strike bowling alley in Hollywood, only to get shut down by the fire marshal due to over capacity. As he left, Roth said something about doing the reunion at a bigger venue. Any news on that front?
Well, yeah, it was very organic the way it came together you know. Billy, Gregg and I were talking and they told me about this Lucky Strike thing on Wednesday nights and it was the 30th anniversary of Eat ‘Em & Smile. And we said why don't we go down and play a couple of tracks and I go,”Yeah!” So naturally we extend the invitation to Dave and he was into it. But we didn't announce that he was going to be there because we though it would be crazy you know and a this place holds 300 people and they jammed 1,700 people in it. The line was out the door around down Hollywood Blvd. around the building and right before we went on standing on stage it was a closed curtain.
I was ready to hit the first chord, and they came to me and said, “The fire marshal is here. You can't play.” “Really? No I am going to play.” “No, you'll be fined,” and I said, “Fine, I'll take the fine.” “Then they'll close us down.” And I was like, "What?” Sure enough like a fire truck, axes, hard hats and big yellow suits, and I'm like, "What"? And yeah, they shut us down. I told them backstage that's perfect needing wisdom, said, “Perfect. We'll get more press out of it!” And we certainly did. The next day I saw in the newspapers, there were pictures of fire trucks and guys running with axes. But, after as a group, I am honored about that record we did make 30 years ago and how cool it was and we thought, “We should do something here.” So that’s on the radar, but with everybody's schedules the way they are, that's a feat to put together. The interest in it is very high for all of us.
Maybe next year?
We'll see. It would be nice. I think it would be nice for all us.
Yeah, when you guys all have an opening in your schedule.
Yeah, when you got to compete with Van Halen, and Gregg is out all the time and Billy is constantly working and me, I’m looking from one thing to the next. It’s something I'm putting on my wish list.
Just a couple more questions with regards to some key milestones in your illustrious career. Back in 1986, you were cast in the film Crossroads as the Devil's guitar player "Jack Butler" where you engage in a guitar duel with Ralph Macchio's character. What do you recall about landing that role and doing the scene?
Well, first of all I was very young, you know about 23, 24 and Ry Cooder was working on this film. They needed a guitar player to help them build a duel, sort of a guitar duel, something that would work visually, and you know because I'm such a ham(laughs), I read the script, and thought, “Yeah I can do this.” I was so fortunate to be able to work with Ry Cooder and we built that whole duel scene. Then the director Walter Hill heard me and asked me if I wanted to be in the film, At first, I was like, “Well, I don't know I'm not an actor.” But they asked me three times and I finally said, “OK, I'll give it a shot.” I did it and it was fun and it worked.
You were brilliant in it. You should have got the Oscar.
Thank you (laughs).
I ask this of anyone I interview who has ever worked with Frank Zappa, and, of course, you did. What was the single biggest thing you took away from that experience of working with him.
Hmmm…well I was young and impressionable and Frank was a mentor of sorts and one of the things I recognized, I didn't realize that I was recognizing this until days later because when I went into the real world, I was stamped by Frank, so to speak. One of the things I noticed was when Frank wanted to do something — he was constantly creative — and when he got an idea, he just did it. He was very present and he never made excuses or depended on anybody to do it for him. He was in the moment and he just did it with great joy and enthusiasm I'll add, or else we wouldn’t have all that music. So when I left him, I just thought, “Well that's what you do.” You get an idea for something and you just do it. Like I said, when you’re young, you’re very impressionable, so I learned that from Frank.