Steve Vai Interview: Carl King Podcast Episode #1

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In this first episode of my new podcast (The Carl King Podcast!) I happened to interview Mr. Steve Vai, guitarist and composer.

We discuss Why He Does What He Does, Music Composition, Classical Music, and his upcoming show at Disney Hall with Los Angeles Youth Symphony in March.

Look for more episodes of this podcast at some point, maybe.

Recorded on 1/31/17.

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CARL
Hello, this is Carl King and this is the first episode of my new podcast. I’ve decided to just call the podcast “The Carl King Podcast.” I’ve gone by so many names in my life that I’ve found it’s a total waste of time and … sick of having company names and projects and pseudonyms. Figure I should just be myself, for a little while at least.

This podcast is going to be subject to my whims and interests. I’ll talk about subjects I’m into, do interviews or whatever I have time for. An episode might be five minutes or five hours and there will be no regular schedule. My time and energy is limited, or they are limited. Something like that, so this is just a thing I’m going to try to do when I can. It’s not a commercial project, just something I think I should do. I see a lot of people really going for it, starting podcasts and trying to make it a thing, making it a big process, turning it into a company or livelihood and that’s really not what this is. I hope to be covering topics like music and science, cult leaders, politics, anything else I want to put out there. I’d like to offer a quick disclaimer to set the climate or context for the first episode, so that you know where I’m coming from.

Lately I spend a very large amount of my time reading the news and following this disaster that is the Trump presidency. His anti-intellectualism and authoritarianism is just terrifying to me. I’m most definitely expecting the worst out of this guy and I am admittedly an apocalypticist. That’s a word for a person who thinks the world is going to end for whatever reason. Thanks, Zeke Piestrup. Anyways, I’m an apocalypticist when it comes to Donald Trump. I happen to think he’s going to drive the country and world into chaos at minimum and I’ve been playing with the idea of betting someone a thousand dollars that he’s going to use nuclear weapons as a first strike within six months, if not three months. Not that a thousand dollars would be worth much at that point.

Anyway, as a form of low-level protest, I’m consciously focusing all of my social media time on speaking out against dictator Trump. If you follow me on Facebook or Twitter or have ridden in my car with me, you’ll notice I’m being as annoying as possible, so I feel somewhat guilty that the first episode of my podcast is about music. Of course, music is nice. It’s good stuff. It’s a big part of my life, but it’s just not a priority right now, as the U.S. is falling apart. I’m hoping to do some political episodes in the future to make up for this but we’ll see what happens. Just by coincidence, my first guest ended up being guitarist and composer Steve Vai, and I want to offer the disclaimer that Mr. Vai and I had no discussion whatsoever about politics and if you’re an angry Trump supporter listening to this podcast, you can get mad at me and not him. In other words, this preamble does not necessarily express the views of my guest.

So, here we go. Let’s see what happens. I’m here on the internet telephone with Mr. Vai. Say hello, Mr. Vai.

STEVE
Hey hey, hello, Mr. Vai.

CARL
I’ve always seen you as a composer that happens to play guitar and I’d like to talk to you about composition today because I think that often gets overlooked.

STEVE
Sure, yeah.

CARL
First I’d like to talk about why you do what you do, so people make music for different reasons and this first question is a bit unusual and long, so bear with me. I consider myself an atheist these days so music to me is a fascinating language or art form made out of organized sounds, and I think you see it differently than that, so I’m curious, do you feel that you have a personal, spiritual, maybe even religious reason for being compelled to compose? I mean, do you feel like you need to do it for a deeper reason than just making cool sounds?

STEVE
Well, my perspective on that has changed through the years. There’s always been a move forward with composing and making music and the reason for me, I think, is similar to the reason for a lot of people. There’s just an enjoyment. There’s a vision. When you get a good idea for something that feels compelling to you, you have a pull to just create it, you know? That’s always been at the forefront of everything I’ve done. It’s a very, very simple kind of a concept. An inspiration arises within you and then you move forward to do it. That’s happening with everybody, all the time, but the way that you perceive it is as different as there are people in the world.

Some people attribute it to their intelligence or their study or their culture or God or their purpose in life or whatever it is. There’s something within every one of us that has this momentum and this desire to create, so as far as the way I’ve viewed that through the years, I’ve attributed different characteristics to it in my head, and they’ve changed, but at the bottom of it all, it’s a very simple arising of inspiration and then bringing it into the world, bringing your creative visions into the world, and we all do it. They go through the screen of your own perspective, meaning wherever you’re at, at any point in your life, in regards to how you view the world or how you view yourself, which is the same thing, and how you … the intention of the creative process that you’re working on, that is different for everybody, but before that is a creative impulse, so when you start talking about religion or spirituality and how that equates or how it works into the creative process, well, there’s as many perspectives on that as there are people, you know?

The thing is, is they’re all right. Everybody’s correct because the universe can create anything. It’s infinite and you are the universe and when you perceive something a particular way, it becomes your truth and then you see things in the world that resonate with what you’re creating as your truth, so that’s kind of an esoteric answer there, but when I look at it, I look at it in its simplest form. All’s you’ve got to do is look at it without any perception, which is pretty difficult because everything you look at, you have a perspective, but when you take your perspective out and just look at it, you realize there has been this momentum of expansion that the universe is doing.

Scientists discovered this. You just look out into the cosmos and you can see everything is kind of expanding, and we came from that. We are an extension of the expansion of the universe. There’s really no debating that because it’s too obvious. We’re here and we came from the universe. Now, what is it that evolved into human beings where we’re at right now is consciousness, basically, you know? There’s this creative momentum that it’s sort of like the creative impulse of the universe, so to speak, and it created us, and when it created us, it endowed us, somehow, with the ability to create, so anything that we do, creatively, we’re expanding the universe. The universe is expanding through us. We think we’re doing it but it’s actually a co-creative effort with the universe. Now, you can attribute that to any perspectives, be it a religious one, a spiritual one, or whatever, but at this point in my life, to answer your question, the way I see it is in its simplest form, which is creative impulses arise in you when you create an opening for them in you and they arise as impulses and inspired ideas, and then you go and you create them, and you can call that … One can call the creative impulse of the universe “God.” One can call that dimension where … That infinite dimension of potentiality that’s within us all, you can call that God, you can call it the universe.

You can call it whatever you want, but I don’t call it anything anymore. I just see it as a beautiful responsibility. I don’t like using the word responsibility because it sounds like something you have to do that you don’t want to do. It’s a privilege to create, and that’s what I think we’re here for.

CARL
That’s an excellent answer and we probably won’t go down this particular road much farther on this topic but it sounds almost like what Sam Harris says about … that there is evidence that we don’t actually have free will and that we’re a consequence of everything that’s happened before us and that free will is an illusion.

STEVE
Yeah, I’ve read Sam’s books and what he writes resonates with me. He’s saying things that are at the core of the teachings of all the great avatars from the past, and I’m starting to see that now, that you don’t have to do anything. It will do it through you if you allow it, and that’s kind of what Sam is saying and he’s also … He’s stating very many spiritual principles, but it goes through his perspective, so there’s a political bend to it all, you know what I mean?

CARL
Yes.

STEVE
When you read his books, he’s touching on the eternal but he’s applying it to other peoples beliefs and why they’re wrong, so, yeah. I liked his writings but I don’t go down that direction in a sense.

CARL
I have to ask, how much do you read? I’m quite surprised to hear that you read Sam Harris. Do you read before bed or is there a normal–

STEVE
I don’t read. I don’t read books at all. I can’t remember the last book I read. I listen to them. I use audiobooks because if I read it means I have time to sit around, and if I’m sitting around it’s usually on an airplane and I’m usually writing music or listening to music or listening to an audiobook. I’ll read occasionally but I find that listening works really good for me. When I’m working out, when I’m running. You know, things like that. When I’m doing things that I have time to listen.

CARL
Ah, that’s very interesting. Okay.

STEVE
Which is quite often. Yeah, today I worked out and it was about 45 minutes and I’m listening to a book right now for the third time. It’s called A Course In Miracles.

CARL
Who is that by, by the way?

STEVE
That’s a big question. I’m not, metaphysically speaking, I don’t follow channeled work very much. Well, I shouldn’t say that, but the Course In Miracles is actually a channeled piece of literature and it was channeled by this woman Helen [Schucman] back in, I think, the ‘70s, and it’s a fascinating … It’s actually a miraculous phenomenon and it just resonates with me. It’s kind of Christian oriented, in a way. It uses Christian terminology.

One of the things I’ve recognized with all the stuff I read and whatever, that terminology may be different, whether it’s Buddhism or Christianity or Sam Harris or Eckhart Tolle or Krishnamurti or Nisargadatta, they’re all pointing to one thing, just one thing, and when you start to understand what that one thing is, you’ll start seeing it, and what you realize is every teaching, if it’s a religion or whatever, is fine, because within it, somebody understands at their capability what they’re being presented, you know what I mean? So everybody is at a different level of development and understanding and whatever they pick is right for them at that time, so within that lies the seed of allowing people their beliefs without having to challenge them, and that’s freedom.

CARL
Okay, so we’ll now move into the topic of composition. This is probably more of an interesting way to go with this than the actual questions that I had, but maybe some more connections will arise here.

STEVE
Yep.

CARL
The next question is, there are a lot of methods of composing and I’ve seen that you write stuff while you’re jogging, experimenting during soundcheck. Hoping you could maybe name some examples of pieces you’ve written using various methods.

STEVE
Sure, yeah, well, methods will change based on the person that’s looking for them and using them and everybody has different methods and I try not to limit myself to one method. It might be something that somebody says that inspires something in you to write or it might be something you hear. Usually that’s a big one. You know, you hear music or you see an artist that you really resonate with and you’re like, “I want to write a song like that.” That’s a pretty big inspiration for a lot of musicians. Sometimes I just sit and play and look for interesting, weird things that come out, but the main method that I use if I want to do something kind of grandiose, it’s a wonderful method and it works for me every time, I imagine it. I imagine something. I create a feeling about it and then I allow the cooperative components to be presented to me, so I’ll give you an example.

Oh my gosh, most of my stuff is an example, but, alright, here’s one. I had done a lot of work with the Metropole Orchestra in Holland and the North Netherlands Orchestra in Holland and the way it started out was, as you know, it’s difficult for a rock musician to get their music performed by an orchestra but it was something I’d always wanted through my life and eventually at some point my friend Codiclu who’s been my friend since 1980 was working at NPR in Holland and he came to me and said, “You know, Steve, I like the way you play guitar but I think there’s a composer in there that hasn’t had an opportunity to really be seen,” so he put together this beautiful concert, well it was like five concerts, and I had composed all of this orchestra music and recorded it and it was released as Sound Theories which was my double live orchestra record and as a result of that, other orchestras around the world were interested then in having me compose for them and perform with me, and the North Netherlands Orchestra was one of the first ones on board and they commissioned me to compose a symphony and I did, and then another one because they liked it so much and then another one, so each time you go to do this, it’s many months of intensive work, but it’s what I love.

So, the third time, which was the last time that they asked me to compose something, I was on the Story of Light tour and so … This is method now that I’m going to tell you. So, I actually create a list. For this particular piece I created a list of the things, the elements, the feelings that I wanted this piece of music to have within it, so I wrote … First of all I needed to have an easy guitar part because I was in the middle of a tour and I had to take five months off to compose this piece and what people want, usually, is a crazy guitar shredding part over an orchestra, and I’ve done that, and I wanted to do something different, so actually the first thing on the list was “write a unique piece of music, write something that’s unique to you and maybe to the world,” so that’s a tall order, but hey, the universe can do anything, so that was first on my list. Now, the trick is in the belief that you can do it. That’s the thing that stops people. You’re only going to create based on the extent of your belief that you can, so I know instinctively that anything that I want to create can be created.

This piece of music, I know that it’s possible for me to create something unique because it’s possible for anybody, and it’s what we’re actually supposed to be doing, you know? So, that was the first line. Something that has to have something unique in it, and the guitar part has to be really easy because I wasn’t going to have time to write 20 minutes of crazy guitar playing and then learn it, you know? That’s huge. Then I also wanted it to have great beauty and an intense chaoticism at times, and so I just wrote this list with all these things. Now, I have no idea what this piece of music was going to be and the timing needed to be perfect because I had things before it and after it and the gigs were already booked for the orchestra shows, but I knew that at some point the inspiration for this piece of music was just going to come, and it did, and I remember exactly when it did.

This is how inspiration can work, you know? It can come at any time and you’ve just got to be ready to grab it and identify it and the way you identify it is the way it makes you feel when the idea comes. If it feels like enthusiasm and that “ah-ha” moment and the feeling of excitement, then you know that it came from the intimate well of creativity that resides in all of us, so I was getting into my car and I was putting the key in the door and all of the sudden the entire vision for this piece of music, it was just there. It was as if it was always there and it was like low hanging fruit but I just was missing it and then all of the sudden, boom. It was such a powerful realization, so to speak, that I actually got weak in the knees and I had to catch myself from hitting the floor, and the idea was to create a piece of music that had me performing one note and holding it with a sustainer for 20 minutes, and the idea was … It’s kind of a little more complicated.

There’s a three note motif and this was actually the second part of a huge orchestral piece that I had written previously for them, and then the previous piece, which was called The Middle of Everywhere, it was a three note motif and I applied certain concepts to it. Same kind of deal. I said I want something unique, I want something interesting, and what I came up with was creating this huge piece of music with the relationship of these three notes but with no rhythmic counterpoint in the whole piece, so at no time is one note any longer or shorter than any others that are appearing, and I knew that would create sort of a tension. You know, a rhythmic, rigid kind of a tension, and it did, and so I thought when I do this second part, which was the one that I laid down all the inspiration for, which was the one that the inspiration came to me when I was putting the key in the door, it’s the second part, and what it is is I play that three note motif and it goes, “da da da,” and I hold that F and I saw myself holding that note for the entire piece of music.

Now, one might think that that’s easy to do but within the concept, the performance of holding that one note was very important because I couldn’t move a muscle. It written into the part is holding that note without moving your body one bit and just keeping your attention intensely on the note, and with slight eye movements and a little vibrato here and there, and once that note starts ringing, then the other instruments come in on that note and then they slowly start to divide and the rhythmic counterpoint then starts developing. Now, when you have one note, the entire piece of music that the orchestra is playing in back of it, this was all part of the realization that came in that one moment, would be ebbing and flowing in creating tremendous amounts of different textures and colors of that one note, because if it’s an F and it’s in a particular chord, it’s going to sound another way, and then if it’s an F in another chord it sounds another way and et cetera, et cetera, so what I’m doing with this piece of music is inviting the listener to meditate on that one note and the peripheral, which would be the harmonic atmosphere, melodic atmosphere that’s being set up around that note, and basically dictating the peripherals of that note.

The harmonic peripherals are going on by the orchestra through what I’m going to compose for them, so I knew instinctively when that idea came that I accomplished all my goals. It’s a unique idea. I’d never done anything like that. I never heard anything like that, so that part of the equation was delivered, and the second part, it needs to be an easy guitar part. I think it’s the first time I wrote a guitar part that any guitar player can play. It was really one of the highlights of my career, was performing it, and it’s been performed three times, and I remember the first performance. I was just standing there and I walked out and I stood out in front of the audience, I mean, sort of right in front and I just hit that note and I’m holding it and then the orchestra starts to come in and it was pretty hilarious, the reactions in the audience, and some people got it.

Some people just thought it was insane. You know, what is he doing? Why isn’t he flailing? Why isn’t he shredding? But I think the majority of the people really got it. The orchestra curators and conductor, they all enjoyed it very much, so that’s one way to find inspiration, is to imagine … You write down what you want and it could be anything. Anything. You’re the boss, you know? You say, “I want to make a record and I want it to be the heaviest thing that I ever did and I want it to feel like this,” so you’re creating, you’re fertilizing the garden, so to speak, and then if you’re open, you’ll start seeing cooperative components around you that will aid in the creation of this thing, whatever it is you decide, so that’s the technique I really like to use.

CARL
This other thing that I think ties into that is you have such a strong technical and academic background, like through high school, theory class with Bill Wescott, Berklee, Frank Zappa. Have you found that over time you’ve embraced that more emotional, intuitive method rather than using conscious choices? Because in common terms it would be referred to left brain and right brain. You went in both directions really strongly, the academic and technical. You know all the names of the notes, you know all the theory, but you also have that open side. Did that develop over time or did you find yourself always doing that?

STEVE
It’s hard for me to tell because I’ve always wanted it all and I was always fascinated with music theory. I wanted to understand it. It looked like beautiful language and art to me and I instinctively knew that if I understood all of the academics, that it would help me in that other side, you know? Going deeper than the technique, which is really where the good stuff comes from. In any field there’s, whether it’s sports or business or art, there’s a period of time when you’ve got to hone your vessel, where you’ve got to focus on the technique, and the amount of the technique you need is depending on what it is you want to do. I always liked the idea of being able to play the guitar a particular way, and writing a particular type of music, so I needed a lot of technique and I wanted to go much deeper than the technique.

When you take someone like Bob Dylan, he doesn’t need a lot of guitar technique to get his point across, you know? So each person has to balance how much technique they need to get their point across. A lot of times it’s easy to get fascinated with the technique and carried away with it, and there’s nothing wrong with that because there’s people that enjoy watching people that are incredibly amazing with their technique, but the longevity and the effect of a piece of music on somebody, I believe, has to do with the other dimension, how deep you go beyond the technique, so to speak, so that’s always been a natural interest in me, is having the academics, and there were periods at the time that I would focus on the academics and writing and the music would sound that way, and I still do that sometimes just as an expression, but usually the academics just become a tool. The technique becomes your creative tool as opposed to you being the tool of the technique, so to speak.

CARL
Are you familiar with this kid named Dylan Beato, this 8 year old kid that can instantly name and sing the notes in any double polychord played on piano? Like his dad will press the sustain pedal on the piano and bang out four overlapping triads and this kid can be like do-do-do-do-do and sing all of them. Have you ever seen that?

STEVE
I’ve seen every clip he’s done, I’ve spoken with his father. I believe that that kid is a revolution in the idea of what humans are capable of with hearing music. I don’t know how it’s going to evolve in him. Sometimes that kind of … I didn’t think that degree of perfect pitch was even possible, because I’ve been transcribing music for many years and I was led to believe that the human ear can’t hear more than three or four notes at a time, and this kid is doing stuff that’s absolutely beyond, beyond, and it was a shock. It was a shock when I saw him, and it’s very encouraging, because if that’s what the young ones are starting to come into the world with, we’re in for some real serious movement in composition. He’s a phenomenon.

CARL
It’s as if we didn’t know that all of that was possible, and if that much is possible, even with composition, what else is possible for humans to do?

STEVE
Anything, that’s the thing.

CARL
Aside from transcribing, have you ever tried to develop those types of almost superhuman abilities? Did you ever set out to do that?

STEVE
Yes, I was fascinated with perfect pitch and I wanted it and I didn’t really have it. I have pretty good relative pitch but absolute pitch is a different ballgame and in my early years I went through various techniques. I would go to sleep with a pitch in my ear and I would just try to identify pitches, but I have to think and I have to listen and I have to kind of … And I haven’t practiced it a lot. I don’t really need perfect pitch, but I’m lead to believe it’s not something you can develop, but Rick Beato I think is one of the authorities on that, and his theory is, and maybe it’s true, that it has to do with a certain gene that a select amount of people are born with, and that gene is in a different proportion in different cultures. Like in China or something, I think it’s like 60 percent of the people are born with this gene.

In other parts it’s different, but you have to embrace it when you’re very young because there’s a development period where … Babies and toddlers and stuff, they’re very open, they’re very aware, in a sense. They process things a particular way that we lose. We don’t lose it, we just obscure it as we get older based on the conditionings of the world. If a child who has this particular gene is mentored properly, then there’s no end to how their ears can be developed, or other things, which is apparent because of Dylan, and yeah, man, when I saw that, it was like, “Okay, here we go.” There’s things that are going to be developed in people that are coming into the world that are completely off our radar right now because Dylan was completely off my radar and this kid’s like, what, 8 years old?

CARL
Yeah.

STEVE
So it only makes sense because as I was going back to our original metaphysical brouhaha, the universe is expanding and continuing to enlighten itself through us, and the young ones that are coming into the world now are equipped with different sets of awareness tools, and because we’re all standing on the shoulders of everybody that came before us. It’s so arrogant for us to assume that where we’re at now is where we’re at and that’s all that we can go, but there’s things that are going to start happening that are going to be game changers, and in the music world, Dylan is a game changer.

CARL
It’ll be interesting to see what develops if he starts composing or …

STEVE
We’ll have to see because you can have an intense degree of perfect pitch like Dylan and not be a very good musician.

CARL
Yeah.

STEVE
That’s deeper than the technique. He’s an example of, as far as I know, and there might be others like him, like his little sister, who’s doing the same thing. There might be people that have … That’s incredible academics, you know what I mean? That’s a magnification of any of the academics that we’ve seen before, but it’s just a tool, you know? It will help him to identify melodies in his head that then he can translate easily, but the bottom line is, what’s the quality of the melodies that he’s hearing? That comes from a completely different place than the academics. This is an example where the academics can help, because if he’s going to go compose and he hears something in his head, there’s nothing that he can’t write down, but it’s like poetry. Poetry is letters assembled in a particular way and into words, and you can understand what a word means but you can be a grammatical genius but it’s not the creative element, it’s the mental element, so to speak, and you’ve got to find the balance between the two, for you.

CARL
Speaking of this, what Rick Beato calls “high information music,” which I think is a great term. I don’t know if he came up with it or not, but how much time do you spend listening to classical music and high information music versus quote-unquote “popular” music?

STEVE
Well, high information music is kind of a relative term because it’s going to be completely dependent on the listener. You can have two instruments that can create high information music, so to speak, but I understand what he’s saying. For me, I kind of go back and forth. Usually if I get a chance to listen to music I’m listening to an audiobook, but there’s classical music that I love to listen to and I’m exposed to a lot of things and I find things that I like in all sorts of genres. I wasn’t always like that but I get it from all over because my one son, Julian, listens to the heaviest of heavy metal you can possibly imagine and some of it’s really good and through the years he’s been my source of what’s going on in the metal world, and then my son, Fire, is really into techno and beats and acid rock and all of the technical music, so I get to hear all the techno stuff that’s coming out that’s really cool because they’re really discerning listeners, but then I like to listen to, well just recently, for instance, I’m a big Led Zeppelin fan. It’s just there from when I was a kid, so I always get everything that Page puts out and I got the vinyls of … A couple weeks ago every night I would just put on a Zeppelin record and listen to it on vinyl, but if I listened to classical music, which I do quite often, there’s particular composers that I like.

In the beginning when I was a young boy I was exposed to the music in the house which was usually pretty conventional. My parents had West Side Story and that was really the bug that bit me in regards to composition, because the music that I heard when I think what first lit me up in regards to composition, what’s capable, it was that and it was a really good piece of music to hear at the time because it had all of the elements that I love. It had drama, theater, and you know me, the ham is cooking, you know? It had historic melody and lyrics and all this stuff. Then when I was taking classes with Bill Westcott, he exposed me to conventional classical music. All the great composers. Mozart, Beethoven, Bach, and I liked it, but it was kind of too predictable for me. It was almost too nice, so when I got into college I started listening to a lot of contemporary composers and that’s when the can of Stravinsky worms was opened.

One of the great things about going to Berklee was the music library that they had because all of a sudden it was like somebody opened the door and it was a bright, sunny, beautiful day out and I was stuck in a room and I was able to hear all of Stravinsky and then all of Maynard Ferguson and all of the Beatles and all of Zappa and all these things, so then my desire, my classical music interests gravitated towards more contemporary stuff and for the past 15, 20 years, I guess, my favorite composers, it started out, you know, Frank was one of the first exposures in an intimate way because I could see the scores. I was working with him, but then there was Stravinsky and in college I listened to a lot of Luciano Berio and later in life too and even now, my favorite composers are Berio, György Ligeti, an absolutely incredible composer. Xenakis was big for me. Elliott Carter, Edgard Varèse, Edgard Varèse’s music is just, it’s a study.

It’s so rewarding and there’s this composer, Magnus Lindberg. Last I heard he was sort of the director of the New York Symphony. This guy is new level stuff. His technique of composing, he uses technology, but his music is very contemporary. That’s the thing, a lot of contemporary music is unlistenable. It’s the intellectual fascination of exploring nothing but the technique, but when you get someone like Varèse, he goes way deeper than the technique, but there’s some romantic music I still listen to. I occasionally will go back and listen to Wagner operas, like the Beethoven and the Mozart. I listen to that occasionally but like I say, it’s beautiful and genius and all this but it’s a little predictable for me. I like the unpredictable. The other classical music that I like occasionally is sort of the romantic period. I’m a big Ravel fan, Debussy and Mahler. Mahler is, for me, huge. There’s nothing I enjoy more than sitting in my studio with these beautiful speakers I’ve got, listening to a Mahler symphony.

CARL
I notice you don’t mention Bartok. I’m curious of your thoughts on that.

STEVE
Bartok, sure, yeah. As I’m speaking to you, I’m looking at my collection of Bartok string concertos in manuscript form.

CARL
Wow.

STEVE
There on the shelf. The Bartok, for me, and this is just … It means nothing, you know? There’s a little more intellect in it than the deeper, than the intellect. Someone like Carter, for me, there’s more of a abstract freedom in it, and I love that. I love abstract freedom.

CARL
It seems like maybe it’s not uncommon for a person who spends all their time playing one instrument to enjoy listening to a totally unrelated instrument. For example I don’t really play piano and I’m absolutely horrible at it. I’m like a one finger piano guy but it’s my favorite instrument to listen to, so does anything like that happen with you?

STEVE
Yeah, it’s phenomenal because I think when I look back and when I look at myself now, I feel that music in itself always felt very natural. I always had sort of a very easy, simple … There’s a lot of simplicity in visualizing something and then translating it, but the thing where I’m not so natural, which I say to people and they think I’m crazy, but it’s like playing an instrument. The guitar is the only instrument I can play and I have to work really, really hard because I’m not natural. I know this because I’ve taught many people and their ability to improve is just dwarfed mine. I mine, if any of them put in the kind of time that I put in, they would have at least my technique, if not a lot, lot more, but as I was mentioning before, it doesn’t necessarily make you an effective, great musician. It can make you a great player or technician, and that’s fine if that’s what you’re into, but the odd thing is, and this is not uncommon for a lot of composers, is they can compose for any instrument. I can do that.

I can compose for a completely accomplished pianist, and I have, but I can’t play the piano at all. It’s the weirdest thing, and I’ve tried. I’ve tried and I was like, “I’m not even going to get into this,” but I can go up to the piano and find one chord that I like and compose a symphony around it. It’s all the visualization, and when it comes time for writing various instruments in the orchestra, you just have to study what their capabilities are, what their limitations are, where they sound the best, and that’s just a study. It’s the academic portion, like if you’re going to write for the harp, which is one of my favorite instruments to compose for, you really have to understand the mechanics of the harp and what a harp player can do, because there’s pedals that you have to keep track of and there’s certain hand abilities and reaches and hand over hand and you have to write it a particular way so they understand it and the one thing about the harp that’s different than most any other instrument except for maybe bowing directions with strings is that the harp will take any music that you write and completely change it up, you know what I mean? To suit them.

When I say “change it up” I don’t necessarily mean notes but the directions, because with a harp you’ve got to write pedalings and I use pedal diagrams and I forensically figure out can they do this? Is it is possible? Is this the right pedaling? Where was the pedaling at? Can they switch in time? You’ve got to think of all these things and then the harpist will just take and eliminate all of your work and just make it work for them and it’s individual and it’s the same thing with bowing. I’ll put bowings, the directions that the strings go with their bow on particular runs and notes and whatever, because I like that. I like getting in there and imagining it. I can see it all, and then a lot of times the concert master will just throw away your bowings and completely redo them, which is fine because they’re experts. I’ve spent years transcribing Vinnie Colaiuta drum parts, you know? In my mind’s eye, and I’ve written many drum parts. Like, written out.

In my mind’s eye I see it and I know what can be done but if you’ve ever heard me play the drums it sounds like a drunk falling down a flight of stairs, so it’s an interesting phenomenon, and then you get guys like Prince who wouldn’t write the stuff but he can play every instrument. You give him 10 minutes on any instrument and he’ll get a song out of it. Well, he used to. That’s a natural for instruments and I don’t have that.

CARL
How much notating do you do as it relates to your rock music? Something to point out here is, it’s almost like your rock music is kind of the tip of the iceberg with all of the music stuff you do. One thought I have is like, how do you even have the time to have all of this knowledge about classical music and composition when you’re working full time as a touring guitarist? Can you comment on that?

STEVE
Well, it’s based on what your interest is and your ability to retain information, and my ability to retain certain things is really bad. Like names and phone numbers and hotel room numbers, stuff like that, but my ability to retain … Or language. I’ve tried many times to learn another language and I just don’t seem to have the retention for it, but when it comes to music it’s like I never forgot it. It’s like I never learned it because it was always there. I can’t explain it really, so when I go to create something, whether it’s with a rock band or a string quartet or an orchestra, you just … You focus on whatever you’re doing in that moment and all of your tools come together. That doesn’t necessarily mean that I’m going to compose something and write it out for my band. I do do that occasionally. When I had the string band, String Theories, with the two violins, a lot of the music was composed because it had to be a particular way. It wasn’t just third party musicians playing blues riffs, you know what I mean? It was highly orchestrated stuff, so if you watch that video and you’re watching something like Angel Food or Now We’ve Run or Ooh, it’s all composed. It’s all written out and given to them and the band and then we have to figure it out.

CARL
Your usage of notation is not something that you have ever stepped away from throughout your career? Have you just always been notating?

STEVE
In one way or another but a lot of it’s based on the musicians you’re working with. Some guys just don’t read.

CARL
Yeah.

STEVE
You know? And Frank … A lot of my whole … I was mentored by him in a sense, you know? Just by watching the way he worked at such a young, impressionable age that I was at, I absorbed his M.O., which resonated with me beautifully because Frank did whatever he wanted by any means necessary and he had guys in the band that couldn’t read music at all but they had something else and he would have them do that something else that they do well and he would give the written parts to me or somebody else and it worked out great, but you have to know what you’re dealing with and what the best way to get what you want is, and in some cases, the best way is to write it out and give it to somebody that can read it, and in some cases it’s like you give the guy the chord and you say, “Okay, this is what we’re doing. What are you going to do?”

CARL
I mean, as far as your own usage of notation, writing things out for yourself, have you continuously done that since you were in high school?

STEVE
Absolutely, it’s like my … If somebody gets an idea for lyric, they write it down in their language. For me, if I get a melodic idea I’ll either … These days I might just sing it into my iphone or I’ll write it out. That’s how a lot of my music was composed. Especially in the early days, like an album like Flexible. Much of that stuff was composed on airplanes or in airports or hotels, and when I did all the orchestrations for Sound Theories, I was on tour, so I was constantly writing, but for me, yeah, like for instance what I love to do is find a weird chord on the guitar and then write it out in manuscript and then build synthetic scales around it and figure out all of its modes, which they’re not conventional modes, they’re all synthetic, and you know modes, once you understand scales and how modes work, you realize that the modes have completely different flavors in them than their brothers or their sister scales, which are the same scales, just starting on a different root, so I love to create a synthetic scale and then built the chords off it, and then from there, you’ve created a harmonic dimension that you can do anything within, but those are the building blocks, so I may just sketch out a chord, write a scale around it, just so I can see what all the available tones are, because that’s easier for me than just trying to just figure it out on the guitar.

CARL
I think we can probably wrap up by … I wanted to ask you about this American Youth Symphony show at Disney Hall you have coming up very shortly. I think it’s in March. Can you talk a little bit about what’s going on there?

STEVE
Yeah, well a very good friend of mine that I grew up with, Billy Sullivan, works very closely with the American Youth Symphony and I started hanging out with them and they’re looking for interesting events to raise awareness and money for the youth symphony, so they asked me if I would be interested in performing a piece of music that was written specifically for me, and I said, “Yeah, I would, but I’m not going to have time to learn it, so can we think of something else?” They said, “Yeah, why don’t we play some of your music?” So, hey, I’m down with that. I just asked them, “What would you like to perform?” They picked four pieces of music and I was really surprised at their choice, but thrilled. The first was There’s Still Something Dead In Here, which is a really … I have an orchestration for it.

It was a piece of music that I wrote for my first solo record, Flexible. I actually wrote it on a plane, and it was funny because … Well, part of it was on a plane but a lot of it was written in my studio at the time where I had a snake and the snake escaped and killed something in the wall of the studio, but it didn’t eat it, so for about a week and a half my studio smelled like … I can’t even tell you. It was horrific, so I’m composing this piece of music with this stench, so it kind of translated itself into the piece and that turned into There’s Something Dead In Here that appears on Flexible. I think I did the arrangement for 12 guitars and a drum machine and a synthesizer.

That was a piece of music that was completely written before everything was recorded and I just recorded the score, and then I thought, “This would make a really great orchestra score someday,” and that someday came with one of my performances with the North Netherlands Orchestra, so I expanded the piece and did a full orchestration and it’s a very dense, complex, atonal, chaotic kind of a piece of music. Maybe that’s why they chose it, but I’m eager to hear it, and then another piece they chose was Helios in Vespa, which was a composition one that I really love, but we decided not to do it because there’s instrumentation that’s a little too difficult to pull together, so instead we’re going to be doing, they chose Dead In Here, Kill The Guy With The Ball, which is where I come out and start playing with the orchestra.

CARL
You’re referring to the beginning of the first … Because that’s sort of a pair of piece of music, isn’t it? The Kill The Guy With The Ball and the God Eaters, you’re talking about the rock section, right?

STEVE
Yeah, Kill The Guy With The Ball is kind of a long piece of music that appears on Alien Love Secrets and it’s basically just guitar, bass and drums, and then it goes into a piece called The God Eaters, but in order to play it with an orchestra, I had to condense it quite a bit. It’s much shorter. It’s like a quarter of the length, and it’s been performed many times and recorded and released with the orchestra and those releases have attached to them the segue into The God Eaters, but what I’m going to be doing at Disney Hall is strictly the portion that’s Kill The Guy With The Ball, and then The Murder, which I love performing because it’s just total wide open space for the guitar, and then Call Of Sleep, which I’ve only performed once with an orchestra in the ‘90s, in the early ‘90s, so I’m working on that score right now because it needs some beefing up, and that’s … It’s interesting that they chose those pieces of music for this concert at Disney Hall. It’s really dense, heavy, dark stuff, except for Call Of Sleep.

CARL
Well I’m definitely looking forward to being at that show. I have already got tickets and I bought tickets for my friends as well so we’re going to be there.

STEVE
Oh, cool.

CARL
I want to thank you for being the first guest on this new version of the podcast.

STEVE
Well, right on Carl, and good luck with it.

CARL
Yeah, I’m glad we could talk about composition, because you’re so known for being a guitar shredder. Everybody thinks of you as a guitarist but I’d like people to know that there’s a lot more going on there.

STEVE
Oh, thank you, thank you. Alright, well you take care, buddy. We’ll talk to you later.

CARL
You too, see you later.

And that was the first episode of the Carl King Podcast. We’ll see how long it is between this episode and the next one. I’m not even sure what it’s going to be about but I’m going to say maybe it’ll be about politics, I’m guessing, since it’s all I think or talk about lately. Okay, we’ll see you then. Maybe. Bye.

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