Steve Vai talks Zappa, dreams, blow-jobs, and Passion & Warfare

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ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN THE GEORGIA STRAIGHT, JUNE 7, 1990

By Steve Newton

In rock guitar circles, Steve Vai is the type of personality that Entertainment Tonight might giddily term hot. Walk into any magazine shop, glance at the rock ’n’ roll section, and chances are you’ll see the handsome, raven-haired guitarist grinning wickedly from a cover or two, his psychedelic seven-string Ibanez electric guitar slung provocatively at his hips.

Vai and his childhood buddy Joe Satriani are the fave cover boys of today’s guitar publications; the dynamic duo from Carle Place, Long Island moves a lot of copies. They don’t do badly in the album, tape, and CD departments, either.

Mainstream rock fans who don’t normally pick up the latest issues of Guitar Player or Guitar World or any of the other glossy mags honouring today’s top axemen might not be aware of Steve Vai’s reputation, but more than likely they’ve heard a tune or two by his current band, Whitesnake. Matter of fact, several Vancouver fans might still be reeling from the band’s local appearance on Wednesday (June 6) at the Coliseum.

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But the blues-based shenanigans of David Coverdale and his troupe are not the only things Vai has on his mind these days. The lanky guitarist—who turned 30 the day of his Vancouver appearance—has just released his second solo album on Relativity Records, a multi-coloured instrumental excursion into the outer reaches of guitardom titled Passion and Warfare. Vai was busily correcting musical transcriptions for his upcoming guitar method book when the Straight reached him at his hotel room in Billings, Montana and got the low-down on his latest project, which is bound to become a landmark recording for rock guitar in the ’90s.

Ever since he was 12, Vai has kept an extensive journal of his dreams, and he says that the concept for Passion and Warfare came from a nocturnal experience that occurred when he was a teenager.

“I think a lot of people get their inspiration from dreams,” says Vai, “but this was a different type of thing. It took place when I was about 16 years old. I was studying dream states, and I stumbled across a couple of things that were like experiments or exercises in this particular avenue of investigation. And this particular experience—later on I found out that a lot of people term it as an astral projection or an out-of-the-body experience—was extremely vivid. It had a pretty devastating effect on me as a musician, and from it came a whole series of writings. The writings turned into the album, Passion and Warfare.”

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Vai is hesitant to try and explain the meanings of the songs that his experience conjured up—“I’d rather let people free-associate right now”—but one run-through of the 14 tracks on Passion and Warfare and you know they wouldn’t be easy to pin down. Vai’s material runs the gamut from over-the-top electric raunch to transcendental acoustic balladry—flat-out rock ’n’ roll boogies nudge whimsical shuffles and soaring blues-meets-Wagner epiphanies. With accompaniment from Satriani bassist Stu Hamm, drummers Chris Frazier and Tris Imboden, and computer maven/keyboardist David Rosenthal, Vai takes us on an unpredictable journey to the limits of fretboard wizardry.

Vai’s musical life-story began on his sixth birthday, which just happened to be the sixth day of the sixth month of 1966. (Ever wonder how he wangled the role of the devil’s gunslinger in Crossroads?) He was given a small organ for a present that day, and started taking lessons. He flirted with the accordion and the tuba as well, before falling for the guitar. At the age of 15 he hooked up with fellow guitar hero Satriani.

“Joe was the guitar player in town,” Vai recalls. “He had a rock band and I had a rock band with all the younger brothers of the people in his band. A lot of kids in town took lessons from him and that’s basically how I started.”

Vai went on to study guitar at the prestigious Berklee Institute, but was snatched from the classroom by musical maestro Frank Zappa. At 18, Vai was the youngest member ever to join Zappa’s demanding ensemble, and his specialty was playing the parts Zappa had written but deemed too difficult to play himself.

“That was great,” says Vai, “because I simply adore Frank’s music, and I love the guy. He’s absolutely, unequivocally unique.”

Vai stayed with Zappa for several albums—including his personal faves, Man from Utopia and Ship Arriving Too Late to Save a Drowning Witch—and Zappa’s wide-open approach to life and music rubbed off on him, especially on his solo debut, 1984’s Flexable.

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“I didn’t really know what I was doing with that album,” says Vai. “I was just experimenting in the studio. There’s some raunchy guitar stuff on it, but mostly it’s like cornball arrangements. The people who have it and like it really like it; the people who have it and aren’t prepared for it think I’m out of my mind. So both responses are good,” he chuckles.

After his tour of duty with Zappa, Vai was called in to replace Swedish guitarist Yngwie Malmsteen in the hard-rock outfit Alcatrazz, led by former Rainbow vocalist Graham Bonnett. On a day’s notice, Vai stepped into Malmsteen’s tour shoes, and remained with the band for the recording of its most successful album, 1985’s Disturbing the Peace.

A year later, Hollywood called with a part in director Walter Hill’s musical adventure, Crossroads. Vai was offered the role of Jack Butler, the evil-incarnate guitarist who is ultimately out-riffed in a picking duel with good-guy Ralph Maccio (who mimed to Ry Cooder’s blues licks). The role was perfectly suited to Vai, whose dark countenance and gleefully demented showmanship—coupled with his whammy-bar riffs from hell—made for one of the film’s most memorable scenes. But he wasn’t about to sell his soul to Tinseltown.

“I’d much rather be a rock star than a movie star,” quips Vai. “It was a lot of waiting around and stuff. And from the time I did Crossroads I got a lot of offers to do other movies and stuff, but the parts haven’t really been that great. There’s all these demonic roles, and I don’t wanna pursue that negative image.”

Shortly after his film stint, Vai made his biggest move career-wise when he hooked up with David Lee Roth. As Roth’s first high-profile guitarist since Eddie Van Halen, Vai had his work cut out for him. But he didn’t try to fill Van Halen’s shoes.

“I had too much respect for Edward for that,” he points out. “I mean, I was just as big a fan as anybody else—Edward is the king! I loved playing Van Halen songs, but I couldn’t compare myself to him—it’s not what I want hanging over my head when I perform. I just wanna be me, you know, and let him be him.

“But there were a lot of people who resented me at first,” he adds. “It was like, ‘Who’s this guy who dares to take over for Edward!?’ But it’s what you believe in your heart and how you conduct yourself that they’re gonna pick up on, and after awhile I  believe they accepted me for what I was.”

Vai made two records with Roth, Eat ’Em and Smile and Skyscraper, before moving on. Soon after quitting the Roth clan he got a call from another Dave—Whitesnake’s Coverdale—asking him to replace injured guitarist Adrian Vandenberg on the band’s Slip of the Tongue sessions. Vai says there are a few differences between playing with Yankee Roth and Brit Coverdale.

“With Coverdale I’m completely free to play exactly the way I want. Oh, I could do that with Roth too, but with Coverdale I’m more of a band member, so to speak. I have more at stake. Roth definitely had its advantages, too, it’s just that David and I started growing in different musical directions, so I thought it best to split it up right there.

“But we’re still friends. We shared a lot together—and I don’t want to lose that, you know, because we might work together again in the future sometime, you never can tell. And I don’t want to burn any bridges. The only time I’d ever cut somebody off completely is if I got ripped off, but people I work with never do that to me because I’m honest with them and they’re honest with me.”

Vai’s playing on the latest Whitesnake album probably had a lot to do with its selling over a million copies in the U.S. so far. But before the current Whitesnake tour started, Vai had something that he had to get out of his system, and that was the recording of his just-released solo album.

“I really had to do that album now, because there’s a certain side of me that needed to be expressed that I haven’t shown for a long time—since Flexable. I really enjoy being in the rock bands that I’ve been in, but I need to shut myself up in a studio, kick everybody out, and not listen to anything that anybody says about what I should do, shouldn’t do, can do, or can’t do. And that’s why I had to do Passion and Warfare, because that’s what Passion and Warfare is.”

Vai recorded the album at his own 48-track digital studio—the Mothership—working around the clock over a three-and-a-half month period. He wrote, arranged, engineered, and produced everything himself, and his description of what he went through to record his favourite track, “For the Love of God”, gives a pretty good idea of the type of devotion Vai puts into his music.

“I prepare for a song very differently than most people,” he asserts. “For this particular piece I fasted for four days. And fasting puts you in a different state of mind. I do it for cleansing reasons, and I also do it for…just some other reasons, you know. And when you inflict that type of discipline on your body, it puts you in a certain state, and that state will translate into whatever you do—it affects your mentality.

“So when I started to practise the song—I need like a day or a couple of days to get my chops up—I’d lost all my callouses, and I immediately started playing, and my fingers started to bleed under the skin. So any time I touched anything—least of all rub my fingers up and down wire—it was excrutiatingly painful. It made the performance of the song a lot harder to actually execute, but there was a certain state of mind that I was in, and I was pushing against the physical pain of fasting and the pain of the fingers, and it was a very special moment.”

So does Steve Vai, guitarist for the ’90s, live by the credo that a rock guitarist has to suffer to do his best?

“Not at all—that’s just a certain technique I chose for that particular song. I might get a blow-job and record a song, you know what I mean?”

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