By: Casey Shafer
Visionary guitarist and virtuoso composer Steve Vai sat down with us to discuss The Story of Light, his first new studio album in seven years. The record is the second installment in a trilogy that began with 2005's Real Illusions: Reflections, and features twelve tracks of Steve's trademark guitar work, plus guest turns by Beverly McClellan and Aimee Mann. The Story of Light is available for digital download on iTunes, Amazon, and in retail outlets.
Click here to check out photos from Steve Vai's performance at San Francisco's The Regency Ballroom on October 9
JamBase: Steve, you have been around for over 3 decades and have recorded 16 solo albums. Do you feel that this record [The Story of Light] is representative of the last 30 years of your career?
Steve Vai: Well, I think what an artist releases at a particular time is a snapshot of where they are. I do all kinds of different records; some of them are instrumental and some of them are orchestral; to say that one record encompasses everything [is hard]. In a sense it does, but it’s a particular type of record within a particular framework of how I release records.
This record is quite different that some of your previous albums, you have Beverly McClellan singing on one of the tracks and I was just curious as to what your frame of mind was…
...I am very happy with the way The Story of Light came out. I am probably in a better frame of mind and perspective on life now that I have ever been. I have always gotten happier and happier through life (laughs). My last studio record [Real Illusions]; I came up with the idea to express a story over a series of records and make the records sort of...installments. I didn’t really want to give the story away in any particular order. The goal eventually is to release 3 installments, then take all the records and put the songs in the right order and create a linear kind of experience that has an easy to follow storyline.
| Steve Vai by Susan J. Weiand|
The title track of the record has this huge guitar sound with an underlying melody. I found it impressive that you were able to make this wall of sound and still have this amazing melody shine through. How did you go about laying that down?
First I had a vision for it; I’m very good at visualizing. The idea for the song came to me, I knew what I wanted to song to be but I didn’t know what the notes were. I knew that I wanted it to open with these gigantic, fat seven-string chords that are totally saturated with distortion and have a lot of pension in them. You can make chords on a seven-string guitar that you just can’t make on a six-string but you have to play them in a certain way so that they resonate. You need to hear the notes; you don’t want it to sound like mud. When people think of the seven-string they immediately think (makes “chunky” guitar noises), but when I was thinking of the song I wanted to create this wall of sonic, lush [guitar] assault. It’s very dense and there is a lot going on, but everything has its place. My only frustration is that with digital recording; when you have a lot of layers and a lot of information, it has a tendency to get bogged down. Had it been analog, it would have sounded different.
You recorded the entire album digitally? You hear of a lot more people recording analog now days, especially with vinyl selling more lately, is that something you considered?
As much as we say we would like to record analog, it becomes impractical at some point. There is so much editing involved in what I do and I have gotten used to the editing abilities in digital. The ease and tools at your command when you are doing digital, it makes it really different to go back. Having said that, there are probably projects that I would like to do in the future that are simple enough to use analog. It’s interesting because, analog has a particular sound and it is representative of a certain time. These days, if you hear something analog compared to digital, even though it may sound warmer, it may not sound contemporary to some people.
But anyway, capping off what I was saying about, "The Story of Light,” I wanted the whole end piece to be a linear melody. That part isn’t a solo. I took great care in creating and crafting each phrase so that it would sound unique compared to other stuff I have done. I asked myself, “Okay, what are you going to do here that is going to have a different vibe to it, and a different feel?” It’s a highly orchestrated piece of music with all the bits that go along with the bass and piano and drums.
| Beverly McCellan by Susan J. Weiand|
I wanted to talk to you about “John the Revelator,” and how that came about with Beverly McClellan singing.
Well, I heard the original recording of Blind Willie Johnson and I was enamored with it. I started collecting all of his music and I was really moved by it; ‘John the Revelator,’ in particular. When I was hearing it, I was hearing it with these big guitars, the second song, the book of seven seals was actually one piece with ‘John the Revelator.’ In my mind I was picturing this huge, almost Broadway production with throw down gospel stuff and these huge guitars. I needed someone to sing on it because, while I like to sing, I know what my limitations are. Right after I finished recording the song, I was hosting this function and there were several performers and Beverly was one of them. I never really saw her when she was on [The Voice] because I don’t really watch that stuff. (Laughs) My wife watches it, and she tells me about it, but I don’t watch it. It’s all about ‘Dancing with the Stars,’ and whatever these days…
I don’t believe you Steve, I think you are addicted to reality T.V. and don’t want to admit it…
(Laughs) Yeah, you know it’s funny because I do know all about the Kardashians…
I bet you do!
I am ashamed to admit it. At night I come in and I only get 10 minutes to surf T.V. before we fall asleep and [my wife] has the clicker. So, yes, I know all about the Kardashians…
| Steve Vai by Susan J. Weiand|
I have to say, I have managed to never watch an episode of that show…
You are a blessed man…it’s like a car-wreck. Anyway, I saw Beverly perform and she absolutely blew me away. I thought, “wow, that is the person I need to sing on this.” I sent her the track and she just kicked ass on it. She did so well that I took her out on tour with me to open the show. That was great because she doesn’t do anything like I do but the audiences loved her.
I was curious, I used to tour for several years and after a while it really started to take a toll on me physically and mentally. I am always fascinated with people who have been able to do it as long as you have. How have you managed to do it?
It takes a lot less of a toll on me now than it did back then; I am a lot more stress free now. It was a learning curve from day one.
When I was a young man, I was 20 years old when I started with Frank Zappa, and that was a very difficult tour for me. It wasn’t because of Frank, it was a flying tour so we had to fly everyday and we had two shows a night. I was young so I didn’t really know how to take care of myself. We would get back to the hotel at 1 a.m. and get up at 9 a.m., then back to the airport, do a 2 hour sound check and then a 2 hour show…that was difficult. When I was with David Lee Roth it was a lot different. We had tour buses and more days off, the shows were shorter, it was just more comfortable. The thing that makes touring really difficult is a bad attitude. There are no secrets at sea… if someone in the entourage is a bit of an asshole, when you are on the road you become a really big asshole. It’s that kind of stress that makes it tough. So, I learned not to tour with anyone that is going to give me an experience that is anything but a wonderful one. Some of it was auto-suggestion. I started looking for the things that I really like about being on tour and if you have that frame of mine, you start finding those things. This tour has been great. The first two months…
Two months! That is a bit of a stretch and you aren’t even close to done…
(Laughs) I can hold my breath that long…
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Images by: Susan J. Weiand
Steve Vai :: 10.09.12 :: Regency Ballroom :: San Francisco, CA