the AU interview: Steve Vai (New York)

World-famous guitarist and musician Steve Vai kicks off his Australian tour in July, with our crowds being give the opportunity to see Vai perform with his full band in showcasing his most recent material and just to show off his not-to-be-scoffed-at talent as live performer. Vai was kind enough to take some time out from touring in giving us the lowdown on the upcoming tour, his band and what to be expecting in July.

Thanks for your time Steve – I understand you’re currently on tour, how is everything going?

Yes, I’m on tour with the Evolution Orchestra. It’s a 50 piece orchestra and a rock band and we are performing pieces from my Sound Theories CD which is basically a hand full of tracks from my catalogue that I orchestrated. It’s sounds quite powerful and feels amazing to play with such a force behind me. On the Orchestra tour I visited Holland, Russia, Siberia, Belarus, Kiev, Poland Spain and Italy.

It won’t be long before you’re in Australia for a run of dates – music fans love you over this way, how are you looking forward to coming over and sharing the sets you’ve been taking all over the place to our crowds?

I always get excited to tour in Australia. There is a very different atmosphere there than the rest of the world. I’ve said this in the press many times before but the Australians are the nicest people in the world. They are…charming, really. There is a social gravity that permeates any culture, and the Australian one is light and airy.

I’ve visited Australia a lot in the last 4-5 years with either ZPZ, Alien Guitar Secrets Master Class, G3 etc, but I have not been there doing a full Vai show in a while. This is the thing I enjoy doing the most and feel I am the best at. I’m very eager for the Aussies to see this show.

With Story of Light being released last year, can you tell me about to what extent the record has been featured in the live shows, how it’s been received and how the songs you’ve showcased have been adapted for the live stage, if any?

Surprisingly enough, the record charted in most countries around the world and the reviews from the shows are almost embarrassingly good, ha. Check them out -!

We do around 6-7 tracks from the new record and they are rolling off our fingers wonderfully. In the beginning of the tour I had Beverly McClellan out with us and she would do “John The Revelator”. It took the house down, but unfortunately she will not be joining us on the Aussie run.

The album has been described as a bit of a ‘rock opera’ in structure – when thinking about the album in terms of being part of a larger ‘story’, how much did this affect the way the music was written and arranged?

I believe that an inspiration for a piece of music, art, etc. can be triggered by many different things and for me when I have a story for a song, or a character that a piece of music is based on, it can aid in the imagination department. The Real Illusions quadrillogy offers a lot of food for imaginary thoughts and song constructions.

For instance, there is a track on the record called “Gravity Storm”. I actually had the title before I wrote the track. It’s about a place where the gravity can change and objects can become either heavier or lighter depending on the type of storm it is. In this particular scenario, there is a very heavy gravity storm that takes place. Items become so heavy that if a person did not retreat to a special gravity equalization shelter they could crush under their own weight. So I needed to write a song that depicts this idea; if you listen to the track “Gravity Storm” you can see how I did this with the guitar part.

As a music fan, were you exposed to the sort of exploration of music and use of sound that you’re making yourself, when you were learning your way through the industry and growing up? Who would you cite as influences, in terms of the creative direction you’ve taken over the past few years?

For the most part, I have had three music life mentors. Joe Satriani was my teacher from ages of around 12- 15 or so. He continues to be a constant source of inspiration on many levels. Then there was Frank Zappa. From him, I learned that if you get an exciting idea, just do it. I also learned the importance of understanding the music business and being independent and not desperate. There was also David Lee Roth, where I learned performance, how to communicate to a large crowd, and how to be intensely serious, but not too serious, about what you do.

When you’re in Australia in July, you’ll be performing with your full band; for people who may not have seen you with this group of musicians previously, can you tell us about how you all came together and how they amplify and add to the atmosphere you hope your music generates in a live arena?

In the band I have Dave Weiner on guitar. He has been with me for close to 13 years. He is as solid as the day is long. Philip Bynoe on bass - Philip has also been with me on and off for around 14 years. He has amazing ears and a stunning degree of perfect pitch. Jeremy Colson on drums, Jeremy has been with me for the last 11 years. He hears me when I play and knows how to communicate. He has impeccable time and can hit as hard as a wrecking ball. These guys are respectful and professional, but more than anything, they are great guys that love to tour and we have a wonderful time together. It’s like a family.

Then there is the alternating four band slot that is usually filled with an odd instrument or keyboardist. Last tour, I had Deborah Henson Conant on electric harp and that added a nice dimension to the sound. Before that, I had Anne Marie Callhoun and Alex DePue on violin. That was the String Theories band. This time through Aussie, I have this young wonder kid keyboard player named Michael Arrom. He’s 18 years old and a stunning player.

You’re widely known and revered for your phenomenal guitar skills – when on the road for the last 12 months or so of touring, had you added any new equipment or pieces to your rig/set up to get that specific sound achieved on the latest record or the stuff you may be working on now? How much of a perfectionist are you when it comes to prepping your music to be performed night after night for extensive pieces of time on the road?

My gear has not changed for a while. I’m still using the Fractal Axe FX and Carvin Legacy amps. They really suit me. Every now and then I plug in a funky new stomp box and may use it for a while. There is a very cool innovation in the new Digi Tech Whammy pedal. There is a button you can hit with your foot that changes the pitch on the fly. I used it in “Weeping China Doll”. It allows for a unique effect and that’s what I look for in a piece of gear.

In preparing songs for a tour I usually learn the original parts and will slightly vary them over time. If I like the solo I will keep that too but most of the time I’ll just go off into lala land if elements permit.