Live at Last

Editor's Note: Steve Vai has for more than two decades and over 20 releases played his music with verve. He will headline this summer at the Starmus IV Festival with the “The Modern Primitives” in Trondheim, Norway. The following interview is repeated from July 2001 when Vai spoke about his music and his live recording.

Stylistically eclectic, versatile and musically explosive, Steve Vai is perhaps the most prolific guitarist of his generation. Not long after his debut in the rock arenas of the 1980s, Vai was recognized as one of the top artists that the guitar world had seen. Today he is one of the most prominent solo musicians in the music industry. "I have matured. I feel with no less energy than before and I feel that I got a better handle on my guitar playing,” he states. That is something not to be taken lightly from someone who seems to manage to astonish an audience every time he releases a new record.

This time Vai is doing it live. Alive in an Ultra World is Vai's epic effort that brings fourth new material recorded around the world while on tour. "When you hold that record in your hand you are holding three years of intense work,” he says. But what made Vai confident about releasing a live album this time? Surely his mature musicianship and flawless playing came to play. In an interview for Jupiter Index, Vai talks about recording live, his career and the new directions in rock guitar music.

Jesus Ramos: I know that you are quite critical about live recordings. What made you decide to release a live album this time?
Steve Vai: Well, I am very critical about live performances and I rarely find live performances of me that I really like, but I always think that the opportunity to release a record is a golden opportunity. I came up with this idea of doing a live record of new material, which to me makes more sense than a live record of old material. I thought that I wanted to do it a little more interesting and a little different, so I said why not record songs around the world, and then, why not write music that was characteristic of the cultures that I was going to. So, it was a great project that took like 30 seconds to come up with but took three years to make it real. It was a lot of hard work. We had to book a tour - the Ultra Zone tour - and then we had to build a little studio. I had to research music and then write it. Most of the time I wrote it on tour and then we would have to have very long sessions of sound checks, like for four or five hours every day. It was very tough on the band and I’m surprised that they were so professional about it. I wrote songs that were representative of Rumania, Bulgaria, Turkey, Japan, Australia, Italy, Germany, Ireland, France, Argentina. When you hold that record in your hand you have a representation of songs that were recorded all around the world.

One senses a strong eastern character in your music at this point, is there a specific ethics behind it?
Well, I think that when most artists evolve through their career their attitude changes and so their contribution changes and what it is that they are doing. For me, I’ve been looking at my career for the last five years and trying to project myself into the future saying ‘if I’m 70 years old, looking at the body of work that I’ve created, how am I going to feel about what I’ve done? How do I want to feel?’ I think that it is important to bring something into the world with some social redeeming value and have a positive impact. You become what you create and if you create dark and sinister music then you become that, and people who listen to it you push those buttons in them. Music is extremely influential to society and culture.

Has it ever been difficult for you to bring musical ideas to the guitar?
No, that’s always been like a cakewalk. I always just pick up the guitar and stuff comes out. I don’t know where it comes from. Sometimes it comes out of muscle reaction from just playing because I’m just familiar with the instrument and sometimes stuff just come up like small bits of inspiration.

Have you ever thought of taking your music to other formats or other type of ensembles?
Oh yeah, I have. I have a project, which is called Sound Current that consists from a 70 to a 100-piece orchestra, an electric guitar and a three-piece rock band. It was composed, orchestrated and performed in Rochester at the Eastman School of Music in ’94 or ‘95. There are so many things that I would like to do, but you have to be realistic and have your priorities because we are not here for that long.

As a guitarist and as an artist what is the most difficult thing that you are confronted with at this point?
The hardest thing is that you get an idea for something, like a song or a particular project and ideas are easy to come by, but making them real can take forever, it could be really time consuming. Alive in an Ultra World, the whole concept came to me in literally 30 seconds, but it took three years of intense work to make it a reality.

Steve Vai from the metal years is very different from Steve Vai and the solo music that we hear today. Were those metal years in some way therapeutic for you in the sense that you got rid of some musical urges?
Absolutely. I’ve loved rock guitar music since the time I was ten years old when I heard Led Zeppelin for the first time and it was all over for me. I love the energy of rock music and when you listen in Alive in an Ultra World there are some songs that are very heavy. All those bands that I was in during the ‘80s, yeah, it was a fantastic experience. I got to play in every arena in America five times and I was famous overnight basically.
I made a lot of money and all that stuff was good and I enjoyed it, I love that music.

Then came Passion and Warfare and it was heralded as a break-though album, an album that, with tracks like “For the Love of God,” was a record that was special to a lot of people. Did that album represent something special to you, like a break-through in your life?
Passion and Warfare was something that was in the making in my mind before I even joined any of those bands. That is a representation of my true roots; of rock, orchestral, compositional, theatrical influences, all of those things went into that album and they give you Passion and Warfare. Before that I played with Frank Zappa and, of course, I played Frank’s music. Then I was with Alcatraz, David Lee Roth, Whitesnake and there are certain parameters that you have to put up. I mean, you are with those rock bands and you can’t do Flex-Able, it wouldn’t work. But when it came time to do Passion and Warfare and all of the Whitesnake and David Lee Roth stuff was over I said ‘ok, now I’m going to sit down and make the record that I really want to make. I know is not going to sell anything.’ I thought it was going to be a complete slop but I didn’t care, you know, because I thought it was my duty and my obligation to myself to make this record. I shut the door, I made it and when it was released it was gold in one week and I was just stunned, I was shocked.

How do you see yourself today compared to the Steve Vai of the late ‘80s and early ‘90s?
Well, my whole psychological make - up has changed a lot. I know this is a very used word, but you know, I’ve matured, I’m certainly not at the end of my learning phases, I don’t think any of us are. Like in the early days I don’t feel that I have any less energy, I actually have more. My priorities are much more in shape, I’ve got a much better handling of my guitar playing, my goals and I’m enjoying now more than any other time. It’s because I just turned 41 and then again they say life begins at 40 (laughs), it really is true.

During those years a lot of musical changes occurred in the rock scene with the whole Nirvana syndrome. Alternative rock, grunge, all came to the open. How did this change in musical aesthetics influence your music?
Well, I listen to everything that’s out there. I’m not dogmatic and I’m not a musical snob because I think that in every musical genre there are people that are doing a great job and then there are trend mongers pantomiming the genius of other people. So, everything has an effect on me. If you listen to the Ultra Zone there are some tracks that have a little of a techno edge and it is because those are elements of the techno music that I like, but I’m not going to make a techno record.

Some of your tracks like “Love Secrets,” for example are heavy on electronic grooves, is that a genre that you would further explore may be?
Right there I was letting my ear go crazy and using anything that I could get my hands on in the studio to create a sound. I imagine everything first and then I put on to the tape.

What do you think about the new trends in heavy metal and hard rock?
Well, it’s like in every genre, there are things that I like and things that are just crap. I don’t mention any names unless it is something that I like. When Korn came out I was pretty stunned, that’s pretty brilliant stuff.

There was this time during the late ‘90s in which the guitar was not in the spot light, did that affect you in any way?
Well, guitar is still in the spotlight more than ever. In rock music forget it, everything is guitar, everything. Just not virtuoso guitar that has been really shied away from. Virtuoso guitar wasn’t anything that was ever very popular in the radio except for may be the 20-second solo. There was never any instrumental music on the radio, except may be when Eric Johnson or Satriani had their hits.

So you think there has been a consistency in the reception of guitar music through these years?
Oh, absolutely, there has been total consistency. People love the guitar, there is something about the way it sounds, the way it looks and the way it feels. It is the quintessential art instrument. It’s a sound that feels your soul, nothing else sounds that way. There is not a single song that doesn’t have a guitar in it. The priorities of the guitar have changed though and so has the performance. People are not trying to stretch the limits of the instrument in performance, but they are stretching the limits in the technical blending of sounds and effects more so than ever.

Years ago I bought Flex-Able, but Flex-Able Leftovers came out pretty late, right?
Yeah, I released Flex-Able and after that I probably released around 2000 copies of Flex-Able Leftovers. I did it because I knew that vinyl was going to be extinct, so I thought it would be interesting to have an EP. Then when I was signed to Epic they asked me if I had anything interesting to release and I thought why not re-release Flex-Able and Flex-Able Leftovers and put some more material that was recorded during that period.

Do you feel there is anything at this point that you have not accomplished as an artist?
The list is endless and that’s what I have to face every day, that there are so many things that I want to do compared to the little amount of time that I have to do them.

It’s all about time.
It’s all about time.

by Jesus Ramos