Not many guitarists make me spark up, or have the little hairs on my arms stand to attention like Steve Vai, a truely creative being teleported from the outer regions of the Alpha Centauri nebula (4th quadrant) sent to this third rock from the sun to bring forth some of the most amazing guitar licks and compositions in rock history known to man. I first was awakened to Steve as a scrawny teenager discovering the wonders of guitar in the 80s and from then onto now he and his music has always been a staple of my listening pleasure. I recently saw him and his amazing band play at the London Palladium which was genuinely a cathartic experience. To be given the opportunity to interview him was truly a great honour.
Anyway, here it is, holy fuck, the Steve Vai interview…
STEVE VAI INTERVIEW
– We have to start with God first, specifically ‘For the Love of God’. For many people, this is truly a religious experience listening to this wonderful piece. The emotion and soul conveyed within this composition is actually unspeakable, especially the sort of climax beginning at 2:35 (album version) where you are pounding out those amazing runs. Living creatures have to have souls, and your song exemplifies this deep spiritual element to it. In fact, this is what I believe true musicians do, they channel that universal spiritual energy into that piece of wood, those strings and the electrical energy of the guitar. With regard to spiritual philosophy, the link from the lower mind to the higher, the antahkarana, I presume you have looked into many areas but is it more Buddhist or a hybrid of everything? Science says we do not have a soul. In the sense that spirituality can be fluid with growth through age and knowledge, tell us, Steve, do we humans have souls?
Well, I would never presume to be an authority on such matters, but I can give you my intuitive thoughts on your question. Humans do not have souls, they are soul. That is actually all we are. We are not our past, or our name, the thoughts in our head or even our body. Who we are is actually invisible in this world and that’s obvious to see when you see a dead body. There is only ever one thing that a person can know for sure that is true and that is that they are aware right now. That awareness itself is who you are and it is intrinsically tied to the present moment. You are the awareness that is able to say “I am”. Outside of this, there is nothing a human can know for sure is real.
You are the light of the world. Not the physical light but the light of awareness. For lack of a better term, you are consciousness. But there is only one consciousness and we all share it. In reality we are not separate from each other. Everything we experience in the physical dimension is seen through the filter of our beliefs, or the ego. This creates the physical world we experience individually. We see the world through a split mind and as such, we create illusions.
At this time in our conscious development we are still pretty dysfunctional. That is caused by the belief in scarcity that the ego suffers from.
As we look through the ego we take action based on what we believe is true. This is the cause of any suffering in the world. But when we look past the ego and look into the world through the spirit, we enjoy the experience of our true selves, our authentic personalities, our higher self, the very best of us and others. You may call this our spiritual sight.
This state of being, or dimension of reality, can be accessed by a human when they find the present moment, the now. When our attention is given to the now without any thought, judgement, blame, or fear in it, we enter our natural state of being which is different than our ego personality which always has lack and fear in it. Connecting to the present moment is the most vital and valuable thing a person can discover in life because this is the only dimension where real peace can be found. This is also the the only dimension where a person can have access to wisdom and the purest expression of their creative insights. When taking action in this state, there is nothing a person can do that could hurt themselves or another. On the contrary. Their actions are healing and they become a blessing in this guilty world.
When a person is present while entering their creative mind, their authentic personality gravitates to those things that are most fulfilling for them on a creative level. This is the only time a person can experience their unique, fresh and new creativity, and is also a dimension that I don’t believe AI will ever achieve. But who knows, consciousness can flow into whatever it wants to.
So, in this state of presence, a person is primed to receive those creative impulses that are most perfectly suited for them and their unfolding joy.
These impulses and inspirations come from within and are experienced as intuitive flashes of a full pectoral of a creative idea. Conversely, when creating is given to the ego, what’s created is a repeating of the past in different forms and the ideas are more like fantasies and are usually focussed on something to achieve in the future that will make the person happy. But this never works. The only real satisfaction and deep sense of fulfillment comes from those things a person does while they are connected to the creative impulse of the Universe that can only be discovered by embracing the present moment. You can only ever be happy in your now, and it’s always now. But happiness is a choice.
So, Whenever I do something that hits the mark, perhaps such as you described in “For the Love of God”, I am exercising my potential as a creative.
This is not an uncommon thing that people do in a multitude of fields. Any business, art, or anything that anybody does is empowered if they are loving what they are doing in the moment. There’s a quality that flows into what they do and that quality is felt by those who resonate with it.
So the moral of the story is, do what you love with no excuses.
So yes, I believe you are correct when you say “In fact, this is what I believe true musicians do, they channel that universal spiritual energy into that piece of wood, those strings and the electrical energy of the guitar.” But this holds true for anybody doing anything when they are connected to spirit.
We look into the world through a split mind, the spirit and the ego. This creates all the duality in the world we see. The Buddha, Jesus, Tolle and anybody that is consciously connected to spirit are all the same. We just see them as separate. They attract those that are in need of that particular language and teaching that a particular religion or spiritual guru etc, may be teaching. But we all end up in the same place in the end and that’s the recognition that we are truly and only spirit, and that our function is to allow that spirit to operate and manifest in the world through us. Once the majority of people make this discovery, the world will transform in ways that we can’t even imagine imagining right now.
– In this cold digital age, how do you bring the warmth of the analogue sound into your recordings?
One thing I do is keep an eye on the signal path and do my best to make sure everything is being sent through the best converters. Digital may never truly capture the warmth of analog, but that warmth to the ears of contemporary listeners is quickly being forgotten as something in the past.
– What piece or make of equipment live or studio have you used for your entire career, starting from Zappa to now, that you could not do without?
A whammy bar.
– I believe in the purity of the first take when recording, as I personally feel it exemplifies the pure creative energy and force at that moment in time. Do you think there is some truth to that in the creative sense, or that working over a piece with loads of takes/cuts is also part of the creative recording process?
It depends on the person performing it. Sometimes I like my first takes but not usually. I prefer to tweak things until they have all the elements I’m looking for which is the energy necessary for the track, something unique that I’ve never done before, all the right notes, a compelling melody to it, and other things.
There’s no right or wrong in either of these approaches, but I do recommend doing a few off-the-cuff takes before operating.
– Do you think that in the modern age, artists using the same template digital audio workstation linear software/plugins sort of makes everything similar? Before the software, musicians and artists did not have a visual sense of the music apart from paper and the mixing console, therefore it had more depth in my point of view because the artist was essentially forced to compose/visualise and feel the piece in their mind and through fluid emotion?
I would assume that the artist still has to visualize, and feel a piece of music in their minds regardless of the gear that is capturing it.
As we evolve through various generations of the evolution of the sound of music, it’s usually based on the gear that has evolved and that can give a generation a particular sound, but I don’t think the artists are so concerned with that. A music creator is usually subjected to the gear that is available at any given time in history, but it’s the notes and lyrics they choose that has the most powerful impact on the listener.
– How do you usually approach the creative process when composing music? Do you have any specific rituals or methods. Do you just noodle, let the fingers do the talking until something happens, or do you have a specific tune in your head that you want to transfer into reality?
It seems that when I am at my best, I visualize a song first. Perhaps not all the parts but the intention of the feeling, the tempo, perhaps a particular melody etc. I listen in my head instead of noodling with the fingers. But sometimes noodling can help. There’s no rules.
– Can you share any memorable or challenging moments from your collaborations with other artists or bands?
They all had their moments in one way or another. The last very memorable experience I had with another band was perhaps Hellfest when I went out and played “Still of the Night” with Whitesnake. It was their last show and the last song of their last show and I was able to be on stage with them. It was magnificent!
– Diamond Dave is a real dynamic character, can you recall a funny story about when you were in the DLR band in the 80s? Were there any specific challenges or highlights you encountered while touring and performing live with David Lee Roth’s band?
Every night after the show, Dave would throw a wild backstage party. I HAVE NEVER SEEN OR EXPERIENCED ANYTHING LIKE THEM.
Dave basically carried around on tour a whole room that would be set up every night. It had curtains, great mood lighting, a HUGE PA where we would dance to rock music, (Back in Black usually) a ton of great food and drinks. These parties would be attended by the band, special friends, radio and record company people and perhaps 50 or so teenage girls dressed in 80s sparkle. They were all eager to meet the band and dance and other things.
– The music biz can be treacherous for some artists, and many have been sucked under by either the punishing contracts or the sex, fame, drugs, egoes and booze. How did you get through it all and survive, and do you have any tips for people navigating this maze right now?
I seemed to have always been more interested in the creative process of music and I made the music business my friend. My attitude was always that the music business was here for me and I was here for it. I’ve met many creative and eager people in it. If a person has a defeatist attitude or harbor a victim mentality, they will see the music business, or anything in their life, as threatening.
I’ve seen people get sucked under as you put it. In regard to sex I am sort of old fashioned and have been in a monogamous relationship for 40 years. I enjoy the fame because it’s not out of control but it can come with it’s challenges, I never really got into drugs or booze because I don’t like being controlled by anything and prefer a clear mind. Although I’ve dabbled in these things, the pull to create was always stronger. I guess I could be considered to be a bit nerdy for a rock star.
– Sorry, I am not really a fan of Tim Henson or his band Polyphia, or as I like to call it Polyfilla, which is a brand for a ready-to-use, multipurpose patching compound used on walls. I find their music is somewhat soulless and frankly boring, but that’s my point of view. At what point does the technical guitar and sample chopping of bands like Polyphia detract from the art of song making, in your personal view?
I don’t put up any barriers to how people make their music. It’s all fine with me. What I listen for in music is how connected the artist was in making it. Some artists are very connected with a digital workstation and can crank out some inspiring things, but it’s all subjective because people are different and respond to different things in the music they make and listen to. Some people love Polyphia.
– Your philanthropic work in music education is commendable. How important do you believe music education is in today’s world, and what motivated you to support it?
Music education is vitally important in the youngest years such as kindergarten, 1st-perhaps 7th grade. This is where the seeds can be planted or the interest can be recognized.
After that, music education is important to those that it resonates with. I’m referring to those people who instinctually feel they are musicians.
A person finds what they are looking for. I learned most of my music training in high school but continued to study through college and beyond because I love the language of music. But it’s not necessary to understand music theory to be an effective musician. That comes from someplace else.
– Could you share some insights into your creative process when developing and designing signature guitars and musical equipment?
I usually don’t set out to guess what will work or what might sell best. In the past, whenever I would design something it was usually based on something that I felt was missing that I wanted to have. Thats how the Jem came about. When I was designing it I was designing it specifically for myself. I had no idea if anyone else would like it and didn’t mind what anybody may have thought about it. I just added things that I thought would be good for me. That’s the case with anything innovative that has come through me.
– What can fans expect from your future projects or upcoming releases? Are there any exciting developments you’d like to share about your musical journey?
I’m still eager to create. I will be on tour a lot in 2024 and perhaps 2025, but I have a solo acoustic vocal record almost complete, and I have a few orchestra albums in the can that need some tweaking, and I’m working on a project that I hope to reveal in 2025 that I believe will be unique, accessible, engaging and impressive, but it’s too early to talk about it. For those interested, keep an eye on my socials. And thank you for all the support.
I recently finished my Inviolate full world tour and we did 194 shows in 51 countries. It was a transformative experience and I am eternally grateful to all those that attended and supported the shows. You rock!
Thank you so much for this opportunity…