Steve Vai’s Story Of Light album shows a new freedom, honesty, and ambition and he hasn’t been swayed by an episode of near-disaster.
Steve Vai is a fascinating chap. It’s been over three decades since he first sent Frank Zappa a tape of his playing, accompanied with a transcription of the eccentric legend’s notoriously difficult composition The Black Page, a bold move which gained him a job as a member of the Zappa band. Since then Vai has gone on to play with Alice Cooper, Ozzy Osbourne, Whitesnake, Motörhead, Meatloaf, Spinal Tap, Dream Theater, the Dave Lee Roth Band, and Public Image Ltd; he’s accompanied his one-time teacher Joe Satriani on several G3 tours, helped define modern instrumental guitar music, appeared on multiple movie and videogame soundtracks, won three Grammys, presided over the largest guitar lesson of all time, had a course at Berklee School of Music dedicated solely to his playing, formed his own record label – Favoured Nations – and created the Make a Noise Foundation, which seeks to give those with little financial resources the chance to learn music. The guy’s been busy.
Now Vai, who celebrated his 50th birthday in 2010, is midway through possibly his most ambitious project to date, but one which listeners and fans might not know is even happening.
‘The concept started back before my last studio album, Real Illusions,’ explains Steve. ‘I wanted to do something different: I wanted to do a concept album but I didn’t want to do it conventionally.
I always put these challenges to myself – what are you gonna do that’s a little different to what you’ve done, or what you’ve heard? So I thought, when I come to a concept record, what can I do? First I’ve gotta have a story, and I’ve had one bubbling under for many years. It’s sort of the story of my life, not my personal life, well… maybe, I don’t know!
‘I thought, let me do this concept, let me spread it out over three records, and switch up the songs so that it’s not in a linear form. You can’t really follow the story, because that would have been too predictable.
‘So Story Of Light is the second instalment in these hints at the story. The idea is at the end of it all to create a fourth release, which will be a box-set of sorts, that has all of the songs but this time in the right order with extra in-between stuff. It’ll maybe have some extra songs, and I’ll take some of the melody songs and put vocals on them. It’ll have a narration and it’ll be a very obvious, accessible story that starts and finishes.’
Musically the Story Of Light album features a wide collection of styles, from world music to more mainstream disciplines such as blues and rock. While promoting his previous album, Real Illusions: Reflections, Vai revealed how he’d been influenced by music from Bulgaria, in particular Ivo Papazov and his Bulgarian Wedding Band. On this new collection he has continued to draw inspiration from traditional music.
‘One of the ways I like to expand my musical vocabulary in the guitar and in my writing is to entrench myself in a particular cultural music that I like,’ Steve enthuses. ‘Then what happens, as I have pretty good ears for listening to music and transcribing or understanding how I would work it out on the guitar, is that you get all this weird phrasing you would never do by listening to Led Zeppelin or the blues or anything like that. The thing that’s so wonderful about traditional cultural music is that these people weren’t communicating with the rest of the world when their musical styles were evolving. There are these different sensibilities: their feel for time, their ability to lock into a time signature – very esoteric time signatures – their melodic ideas, their phrasing, their articulation… all these are very different.
‘I did that on the seventh song, Mullach a’tSi, which is a traditional Irish folk song. I’d heard it on a Celtic lullabies record called A Stór is a Stóirín. The way Pádraigín Ní Uallacháin sings it is so profoundly beautiful to me because there’s these really exotic, exquisite twists and turns in her voice, but it enhances the melody rather than taking away from it. You just don’t hear that in American singers. So I wanted to embrace those nuances on guitar to create that melody…and I had to go really slow, little piece by little piece by little piece. When you put it together you have something like Gravity Storm, or one of the other songs where I take that approach. It’s a great way to expand your musical vocabulary.’
One song where his unorthodox approach to genre conventions is obvious is on the blues cover John The Revelator.
‘I heard Blind Willie Johnson on the compilation Anthology Of American Folk Music, it’s all this great old Americana kinda music, and when I heard his version of John The Revelator I was like, woah… I have to put these heavy guitars on.’
On some new songs Vai’s guitar parts include chords that sound as if they’re being played while a whammy bar is being depressed, but the technique is somewhat more complex than that.
‘Yeah, that’s all about bending,’ reveals Vai. To demonstrate, he picks up one of his signature Ibanez JEM guitars and begins to play the riff: it’s a mixture of straight, bent, and pre-bent notes that requires an incredibly accurate level of execution. This tricky style gives the song a unique, heavy tone, which Vai decided to use on more than just the one track.
‘Maybe I was listening to too much Meshuggah or something, I don’t know,’ he laughs. ‘On Gravity Storm, the guitar I used for the recording didn’t even have a whammy bar. I started playing that riff and I started hearing that it had an attitude to it, and I thought, wow, if I created a whole song where most of the phrases ended with this bruuuurrrghhh, you know, this like… pulling down kind of thing, it might give the whole song a particular colour and atmosphere… and it certainly did. It sounds different, but it took the discipline to do that kind of a riff through everything, even in the solo and little bits of the melodies.
‘And it gets difficult when you’re doing double stops… it’s very subtle, but it’s really difficult. Everybody thinks I’m using a bar. You can’t do that with the bar, it’s too obvious, too smooth, and then you can’t do the vibrato. So with John The Revelator I’m doing it in there too, except when you tune the guitar down a whole step and use an octave divider then the balls really grow hair.’
Steve Vai’s desire to constantly evolve his guitar playing and his approach to writing shows that he still has a true fascination for the instrument, and still genuinely considers himself to be just as much a student as a teacher. But how do you set about the business of improving when you’re already a technical virtuoso?
‘Well,’ ponders Vai, ‘I think this could be a very interesting point for young guitar players. You put a challenge to yourself, and that challenge should be just a little out of your reach. The trick is that you have to know that it’s possible. It’s not crazy… it’s possible. Then you have to see yourself in your mind’s eye doing it.
‘If you can do those three things there’s nothing in the universe that can stop you… in fact, the universe will aid you. What happens, it becomes almost like an addiction because you can see, you can measure, your progress – and that’s exciting.’
Whereas most of the adjustments to Vai’s playing are conscious goals he pursues, a recent horrific experience in Argentina has forced one upon him.
‘It was a bizarre set of circumstances,’ Steve recounts. ‘I’ve never told this story… well, maybe just once, because it’s kind of macabre. We were in South America and I was very ill. I needed to go to the hospital, and I made the terrible mistake of going into a public hospital in Argentina.
‘I got into this place and it was absolutely filthy and disgusting. The emergency room was so bad that they put me in intensive care. There were people literally dying around me. They put me in a bed that had a blood stain this big in it’ – Steve’s hands indicate a patch the size of a football – ‘and I couldn’t move or anything, ’cause I was really sick. This nurse was poking holes in my arm and they were screwing it up, so they put an intravenous drip in my right arm.
‘After a while I had to go to the bathroom, and they took the IV and just gave it to me. So I walk into the bathroom and my blood is just going back up into the IV. I asked the nurse what I do with this, because the blood is all backed up, and the woman just picked the thing up and let all the coagulated blood go back into my arm! It felt like my arm was on fire, it was the worst thing ever, and she’s just slapping my arm and saying it’ll go away.
‘When I was flying home a few days later all the veins in my entire arm got hard. It’s not good, and they were popping out. Inside your veins you have a very thin membrane, it’s like a one-cell membrane, and if that gets destroyed they don’t come back, so your arm has to figure out a way to get the blood around. What was really concerning was that when I landed I lost the hearing in my left ear and I had to go and get these brain scans and go on these heavy drugs and stuff.
‘Everything’s fine now, I feel relatively bulletproof, but I lost a little bit of the picking in my right hand. So I had to change my style a bit because I can’t do that fast picking scale kind of stuff anymore – which is good, because I don’t really like how fast picking scales sound. You don’t really hear it in my music, you know?
‘As I say, the universe will provide, and it’s pointed me in different directions of playing, and I don’t feel any limitations whatsoever. I’m not concerned about picking fast, I’ve done enough of it. I plan on continuing to evolve my playing, I just hope it’s not a life threatening situation that causes me to do so.’
Music certainly seems to have been good to Vai. He’s a friendly, polite, engaging individual, and his combination of positive thinking and his hard work ethic have resulted in an impressive body of work.
‘When I look back on my career,’ Vai reflects, ‘if I had to put it in a nutshell, for me the two most exciting things in my life was firstly to be able to pick up a guitar, think about something I can’t do, work on it, then be able to do it. That’s like Christmas.
‘The other thing is to have a musical idea and make it real… that’s so exciting. Everything that’s ever come to me in the music business, all the gigs – Zappa, Whitesnake, Roth, all the solo records – have been a result of just that. That’s why I say I don’t feel like I’ve ever really struggled in this business, because I’ve always had that – nobody can take that away from you – and if that’s your juice, then you’re fine.’