Ep. 47 – Steve Vai Guest Interview

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In this episode, Carl King talks to Steve Vai about his new “motorcycle album” (called Vai/Gash), how he schedules his day, what he learned from David Lee Roth, more thoughts on 20th century classical music, his remedy for status malfunction and imposter syndrome, his unique guitar articulations, and his upcoming tour.

Steve Vai!

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U.R. That (Old Vai Guitar Magazine Column)


CK: Mr. Steve Vai, thanks for being here. 

SV: Nice to be here. Nice to be here with you, Carl. 

CK: Cool. I want to ask you about this new Vai/Gash album, because it’s unlike any other Vai album in that it’s very straight-ahead rock, and as far as I know, you haven’t done anything like that before or since. So can you talk a little bit about that? 

SV: Yeah, it kind of hearkens back to the simplicity of the rock music that I loved to listen to when I was a teenager in the ’70s. You know, Led Zeppelin, Queen, all that great stuff. Kiss, Aerosmith, and of course the other side of my brain was listening to some high information music, but there was an energy in rock and roll that just captivated me. And I was in these rock bands, you know, at 13. And another love of mine was the motorcycle culture. I was one of those kids that would … minibikes and motorbikes and go-karts, and all my friends, we’d just ride in dirt fields and parking lots. It was just fantastic. 

And my brother rode a Harley, and he hung out with bikers, real bikers. He had friends in the Hells Angels and this kind of stuff, and they threw great parties, man. And they knew how to ride and fight and party, but also they were just this lovely group of people. I mean, it was like, as people, they were just … When you’re in that culture and you resonate with them, it’s a brotherhood, and a lot of it’s spurred by the love of riding. And if you ever talk to a motorcycle enthusiast, they can wax on generously about the freedom, the feeling of freedom of being on the road and in the wind and being with your friends. 

And so it’s an intoxicating kind of a romantic indulgence, and I happen to have fallen prey to it. I could never afford a Harley and I always wanted to, and when I moved out to California when I was 20, the first thing I did was buy a little 350 Honda, and that was my mode of transportation and I loved it. And then eventually I was able to get a better bike, but I ended up not being able to ride it because I was joining these rock bands that it wouldn’t made it too risky, so I had to put the bike on the shelf and every day I would pass it and I’d say, “One of these days I’m going to ride you again.” 

And then four years later I had left this band and I was walking through my garage and I saw my bike and I said, “One of these days … Hey, wait a minute. I could ride you today.” And then I thought, “Hey, wait a minute. I can buy a Harley.” And I went out and bought seven Harleys. Within a year period, but this was in the late ’80s so it was the whole … the ’80s-’90s yuppie biker revolution, and I just got swept into it and it was fantastic. And a good friend of mine from the East Coast, this guy John Sombrotto, Johnny “Gash” Sombrotto … It’s so hard to describe this guy. He was just wild, crazy, funny, incredibly lovable, charismatic, unpredictable, but just engaging and just so lovable, it’s hard to … He’s so hard to explain and he’s had this wild life. 

When he was 21, he was riding his motorcycle along these high-tension wires, and he got lost and he climbed one of the towers to see where he was, and the electricity arced and it went in here and it came out his feet, and he fell 30 feet onto a barbed wire fence and caught fire. 60% of his body was just charred, and that’s how he got the name Gash. He was all gashed up. His ear was burnt off but his face was just left perfect. 

CK: Wow. 

SV: He tells stories of what it was like, and we can’t even imagine the pain. It was miraculous that he survived, and he did, and eventually he moved out to California. And in the late ’80s we just started … ’90s, we just started riding together, and it was fantastic. We had our whole group of people and we’d go on all these rides up the coast, down the coast, just fantastic. And as we’re riding, one of the bikes that I had was this big Harley and it had speakers and you could really blast music. I was blasting Steppenwolf and Led Zeppelin, all the music of the ’70s biker music that I like, but it wasn’t doing the trick for me. I was hearing something and feeling something that I thought would be absolutely perfect to listen to when we were riding our bikes that captured that kind of uplifting feeling of what it’s like to be on a bike, and also embracing that music culture that I loved so much in the ’70s.

I was that kid that was going into Pier Imports, World Imports, and looking at all the blacklight posters and all the little head shop stuff, the little pipes and rolling papers and things like that, and my teenage bedroom had blacklight velvet posters all over. I was that kind of kid. I just felt so compelled to make this record. I just stopped everything I was doing at the time and ran into the studio and within a week I just churned this stuff out. Some of it, I put a click, I improvised a bass part and then just laid the guitars out. It was stream of consciousness, you know? It happened so quick, and when I was finished, I needed vocals, and I didn’t know Gash could sing. None of us did. He didn’t even know. I mean, he would sing like Frank Sinatra crooning and every now and then I’d hear him throw out a, “Whoo yeah” or something, and I go, “What is that? There’s something there.” 

So the first thing I did was because I felt like it was just for us, I tried singing. That was an abysmal disaster. I don’t have a rock and roll voice, so I said, “We’ve got to get Gash in here and see what happens.” And I’ve got to tell you, Carl, when he opened his mouth, I could not believe what came out. It was so powerful, so connected, so authentic, it just had all of these things in it, and I realized, yeah, it’s got him. It’s his personality. There’s a comical edge, there’s a lightheartedness, there’s an intensity, there’s a playfulness, but he doesn’t have one stitch of superficiality in any regard, you know? And you can hear it in his voice. It’s authentic. 

So I recorded this stuff and we had it and we listened to it and it was great. And when I was approaching it, I just wanted it to be really straight ahead, no long guitar solos. It’s not about me. This record is not about me hardly at all. It’s about Gash, and I wanted it to be melodies that felt good and just gave you that feeling that we had of rock and roll and bikes, with the guitar parts that … they’re kind of reminiscent to some of the stuff I’ve done in the past, especially with Dave Roth and maybe Alcatrazz, but there’s a big difference. 

When I was doing those records, in my mind, I kind of always loved this particular way of playing rhythm guitar that was just not over-the-top but just scratching the top in its kind of looseness, and doubled … I wanted to double these guitars, make a wall of crunchy, warm … You know that feeling you get when there’s just slanky, kind of loose, and I’ve done some of that in the past, but the big difference between this project and anything I’ve done in the rock field before was, whether it was with Zappa or Roth or Alcatrazz, Whitesnake, PIL, whatever it was, there was always a committee involved in anything. There was many people that were part of the process. It was co-creative, and that would involve song choice. It had to go through all the band members, it had to go through the leader of the band, it had to go through the producer, the engineers, the label, and everybody had something to contribute. Not this record. I locked myself in a room and nobody was allowed in, and I just laid this stuff down to make that statement for myself also. 

Another big difference is a lot of that stuff is very kind of West Coast rock. You know, like the stuff with Roth is rock but it’s very West Coast atmosphere, and the stuff with Whitesnake that’s rooted in English blues kind of thing. Gash was a hard-ass New York Italian biker. This record is as East Coast, and I’m East Coast, you know? You can hear his accent in his lyrics. It’s hilarious. It’s a different kind of a rock energy, and right before I had started this record or jumped into it, it was like a little precursor to clearing the boards to focusing on Sex & Religion. 

So I was kind of looking for musicians for Sex & Religion, and I had already found Devin, and what I didn’t remember was I was auditioning drummers back then and I auditioned this girl that came up from Texas named Tiffany Smith and she blew me the fuck away. She came, visited me for three days and for 16 hours a day we just recorded. She could listen to something and just apply the perfect parts, and out of all the material we recorded, half of it was probably the Gash stuff. And I didn’t even remember she was the one that played drums. If you notice the record, there’s no drummer. It’s a mystery. And I tried to remember it and I asked every … I thought it was Brooks. Brooks Wackerman, you know? Because I was-

CK: Really? 

SV: … working with him at the time and it kind of sounded like him, and I’d say, “This is you, right?” And he’s like, “No, that’s not me.” And I’m like, “No, it’s got to be you. Who else … I wasn’t …” One of my I guess foibles is the past is … Time for me, when I look into the past, is squirrely, you know? If I think of something that happened 30 years ago, I can’t say, “Oh, that happened 30 years ago.” It’s a blur. 

CK: Wow. 

SV: So I tried to find … I talked to every drummer that I worked with in that period, every one. I didn’t even have an engineer. The only documentation I have are the track sheets and handwritten lyrics. I then started to work on Sex & Religion, because that was the plan. The Gash thing was like getting your ya-yas out, and the Sex & Religion thing was more of a focused, large, in-depth, quasi-compositional, heavy project, and it was going to take a lot of work, and I thought, “As soon as I finish this, I’m going to finish that Gash record,” because I only had eight songs and one of them was written … I wrote with Nikki Sixx way back in the day, and when that time came, tragedy struck and Gash was killed in a motorcycle accident, and I was just so disheartened. I just took the whole project and threw it on the shelf and collected myself and moved forward, and probably didn’t even listen to it for 10 years. And once I started listening to it again, I was really moved by the energy, hearing him, how authentic he was, and just the simplicity of the melodic structure of everything, and just the energy. I started listening to it more through the years and just started feeling, “All right, I’ve got to get this out.” Ta-da. 

CK: Well, good work on doing that. I’m interested in understanding that time period, because you said 1991, you recorded this and that it was in the middle of other projects, and there was sort of a two-year gap in your Vai releases between Passion and Warfare in ’90 … or a three-year gap, and Sex & Religion was 1993, and you said you were taking a break from other projects, or in between other projects. Was Sex & Religion really started that early in ’91? 

SV: Well, when you start a project, you start imagining and visualizing and I kind of knew what I wanted. I wanted sort of like a supergroup with a new, young singer that could really sing, so that’s a process. I listened to tons of tapes of singers, and then I don’t remember when I first met Devin. I heard his tape and I called him and he came and visited me in Lake Tahoe. He probably remembers … I can’t remember the year, but it might have been before or after I started the Gash stuff, because when I was doing the Gash stuff, I have photos of Gash, Ahmet Zappa and Devin singing in the studio-

CK: Really? 

SV: Yeah, background Sex & Religion stuff-

CK: Oh, oh. 

SV: We all hung out together. I could tell you stories with me and Gash and Devin that you just can’t even believe. 

CK: Wow. 

SV: Yeah, there was some crazy stuff, because both of those guys were completely extroverted lead singer DNA, over the top, unbelievably talented, quasi-insane, absolutely the center of attention without even trying, and you get two of those guys together, it’s entertainment at its finest, you know? 

CK: That reminds me of what you said about hanging out with Frank, where you would just wonder what he’s going to say next. You just kind of follow around and wait for him to say something. 

SV: Oh, we would just sit around and just wait, and it was always unbelievable, you know? So I’m not really sure, I just knew that I needed a drummer, I tried out a bunch of people, and then Terry came into the picture. I needed a singer, I was trying out a bunch of people, Devin. And so and so. So I’m not sure when, but I know at one point I probably felt, “I’ve got to get this Gash record out. I mean, I’ve got to record this. Nobody’s going to care, nobody’s going to hear it. This is for us. I’m going in the studio for a week or whatever it was and I’m blasting it out without any excuses. Here it is. That’s it. Now, let me get on with the rest of it.” And I think that’s when I turned my eye to Sex & Religion. 

CK: I could ask you about Sex & Religion for years, but-

SV: I know, you’ve been very kind to me about that record, thank you. 

CK: Yeah. One real quick question about that time is that, didn’t that group sort of start as a power trio? Is that what you were originally trying to do with that? Was it you and Terry and TM? Was it maybe called Light Without Heat or 777? Something like that? 

SV: Very interested that you’re aware of this stuff, because I-

CK: I thought I saw it on MTV way back in the day. There was a news thing and I thought, “Oh,” and it stuck in my mind. 

SV: Yeah, I was fooling around with different ideas and 777 was a band that I had had that was me, Chris Frazier and Stu Hamm, but that was just like an opportunity to just go out and play as a trio, instrumental stuff, way back in the early ’80s, but I kind of liked the name, but I also started using Light Without Heat for various things, and eventually incorporated it as a corporation, so that Light Without Heat is one of my corporations. But I thought it would be a great name for a band, and after Passion and Warfare, I knew I wanted to put a band together and I didn’t want to stand in the front of it being the lead. I like the idea of being on the side, being the guitar player, and that’s what I wanted to do for Sex and Religion. 

So, I originally thought … Okay, I remember. Yeah. I originally was going to call it Light Without Heat, but then there were certain things that were happening and one of the things I discovered was I’m not a band. A band is like a bunch of people that get together and accept each other’s contributions unequivocally. That’s not me. And I can do that and I have done that, and I’m a very good collaborator when I put that hat on, but my goal has always been with my solo music to create a body of work that’s relatively undiluted by anybody else’s contribution, and I’m allowed to do that, and that seems to be what I’ve been doing. 

When I started Sex & Religion, I was open to all sorts of contributions but then I realized, nope, it’s got to be my way. And I just called it Vai and wrote all the music, and you have to remember at that time I didn’t know Devin was as brilliant as we all have come to discover.

CK: I don’t think anybody could have realized that, that he-

SV: Yeah, he was like a teenager, you know? And just unbelievably talented vocal-wise, and as a result, I was seeing that this is my opportunity to do my music and, the end. Get all the best people you can. And interestingly enough when I did collaborate with Devin on songs like Pig and Just Cartilage, which was a Japanese bonus track release, it was fun. I allowed that to happen and I actually enjoyed it, but again, I had no idea how brilliant that boy was, you know? He was like a very colorful bird in a tiny cage. And I knew he was going to spread his wings at some point. I didn’t know how big they were, and it was such a tickle to see him once he left my band to just become Devin. 

CK: Do you remember how you went about teaching the songs to Gash? Did you sit down with a guitar and sing along with him on the couch? Or do you have any memories of that or what that process was like? 

SV: Yeah, I have some … The only way I remember is because I discovered some tapes of me singing the songs for him and then I would give him the tapes, or he would just be in the studio and I’d say, “Sing this,” and then he would just take it and run with it, you know? 

CK: Was that entire thing recorded The Mothership or was any of that at your other studio in Tahoe? 

SV: No, that was all Mothership. 

CK: And if I understand, this might be the first of your own albums that you didn’t mix yourself. Is that true?

SV: Absolutely. 

CK: And if so, how did that feel? 

SV: Interesting that you … Thanks for doing your homework. It is the first record of mine that I didn’t mix, and it was because I didn’t … I wanted to mix it. Starting 15, 20 years ago, I started thinking, “Okay, you’ve got to put some time aside. You’ve got to mix this thing.” And a year would go by and I’d say, “Okay, well, I can’t do it now because I’ve got this tour and this project, so I’ll wait.” And then that would happen year after year and then last year I sat down and I said, “You’ve got to get this record mixed, Vai.” And I started to do it and hanging over me was you also have to learn how to play the Hydra and you also have an American tour coming up and you also have … So it’s like, why don’t you do what everybody else does and get somebody really good to mix it? And I did. I got Mike Fraser. Satch turned me onto Mike and I just … You ask how it felt? It was difficult. It felt like my skin was turning color or something. It’s like, “I don’t know,” you know? 

And I sent him the stuff, and he just knocked it out of the park. And I’m like, “Where have you been all my life?” kind of thing, and it was easy because he mixed it. I was on the phone. I was listening and I … “Change this, change that.” And that was the first time, and I’m glad I did it. 

CK: Isn’t that an amazing feeling when you finally take the chance and you have someone else do it and then you’re like, “It couldn’t have been better”? 

SV: Yeah. Yeah, absolutely. And I’ve mixed all my records not because I think I’m a great engineer or producer, but I like doing it. I enjoy engineering. I always have, and I have good ears, and it’s kind of like a Rubik’s Cube that you put together. 

CK: Totally. 

SV: And I’m okay at it. I’m good, but Mike is excellent. He does this all day, every day, for a whole career, so it’s nice to work with competent people. 

CK: Absolutely. I have a question about productivity actually. You are a highly productive person, so I wondered if you could talk about how you plan your days and structure your time. How strict is your daily schedule? 

SV: Well, it’s based on what I’m doing, what I’m preparing for and what I’m working on, but there’s aspects of my day that are relatively strict and that’s exercise and meditation. Other than that, it’s all work. I put aside family time. I have time for that. The last two days I was out of town with my wife saying, “Fuck the world.” But I’m so eager to work. I just love it, and you know, Carl, you’re a very creative guy too, absolutely. 

CK: Thank you. 

SV: I’ve heard your stuff way back.

CK: Thank you. 

SV: You’ve been doing this for as long as I have, you know? And very creative stuff, and so you know that feeling; when you get an idea for something, it becomes the boss. It says, “I don’t care what you’re doing, you’re going to do this now.” And that’s how I’ve always worked, and it’s great. It’s the best way to work, because what you’re doing is you’re constantly following your creative impulses, and you’re surrendering to them. And when you surrender to your creative impulses, you don’t consider if they’re going to be received by the entire world and are going to be the thing that makes you famous and … you know? The ego goes into all sorts of other realms about that and tries to pantomime the brilliance of others who are successful in their particular field, and it cuts right at the root at your potential to manifest those things that are actually totally unique and fulfilling to you. 

So, in some artists, they don’t have a choice. They might be handed a silver platter that says, “If you will record these songs and if you do this, this is going to be a big record and you’re going to go on tour and everybody’s going to know who you are and you’re going to sell a lot of records and everybody will go to heaven in a little rowboat,” you know? And the artist goes, “There, that’s what I want, that’s what I want.” But secretly, in the back of their creative mind, they want something totally different but they don’t have the courage to manifest it because of fear; fear of failure, fear that it doesn’t fit in, all the stupid shit. 

But what they don’t realize is anybody’s creative contribution when done in an authentic, joyful way, is as vital as anybody else’s regardless of what it looks like in the world. You know? We don’t know anything. This is why the safest thing to do is just do what you want. It’s the safest thing. It gives you a feeling of fulfillment that placating other stuff just doesn’t do, even if you’re successful at it. Sometimes that makes it worse, because your sense of freedom is compromised, and that always leads to depression. So congratulations to you for all that wild, crazy stuff that you did in the past, because it’s unique. It’s unique, because you’re also musical, you know? And that in and of itself is relatively rare. I mean, it’s quirky kind of like me. Not like me, but different, but still there’s an authenticity, and that’s what the world needs. Even if it’s for a small audience, that’s enough. 

CK: Well, thank you. Do you timeblock your time for creativity or do you …

SV: No, I can’t do that. That’s for people … I mean, I think for geniuses, they don’t have to do that. They’re always on, like Frank. Frank, no matter what he was doing, it was just there when he wanted it. Guys like me, I have to wait for the Pixies of inspiration to sprinkle fairy dust on me, and I’m probably inspired maybe 3% of the time, but I can do a lot with that, because all I need is one Hydra idea, or one Gash record. How long did it take me to be inspired to do the Gash record? That long. And that’s it.

CK: Yeah. That’s kind of what Tony Robbins says too. It’s like your life can change in one minute with the right idea. 

SV: One inspiration and then you’re left to unpack it, so the unpacking process is part of the joy but you have to schedule it. So much happens in the ethereal dimension and we’re here to manifest it into the physical, but that takes time because this world revolves around physical time. So to answer your question, it’s difficult. It’s a challenge to balance all of the creative projects, because they don’t just come with doing it. It comes with doing press, it comes with going on tour, it comes with the production, which is a lot of legwork. I mean, that one little splash of inspiration can take years to manifest. 

So, my day is those things I mentioned and then whatever compelling creative project I’m working on at the time, or whatever project I’m preparing for. So, like the rest of this month, it’s all about playing the guitar, and next month. It’s all about focusing on getting really deep back into playing for this tour, for the rest of the year, because I hit the road in March and I’m out until next Christmas, and my whole goal, and I’m very excited about this, this is like the real gist of it, is just going deeper in playing the guitar, my connection with the instrument, and how that engages the audience. 

Because there’s no end to how deep you can go. It just starts to involve aspects of recognizing yourself and manipulating them. It’s kind of a maybe not a very satisfying answer, but that’s what my goal is for the next rest of this year, is getting deeper into every note. 

CK: I have questions about that coming up, but I do want to ask you real quick, just to cap off that little section, your schedule is pretty strict though, to be able to be as productive as you are? 

SV: As you know, when you have projects, you have to be strict with your time. The only thing that ever gets in the way of a person discovering their creative flow and engaging with it effectively and powerfully and manifesting it is distractions. It’s all about distractions. How many distractions do you allow in your life in one day? And that’s the challenge. 

CK: That’s a good statement. Shifting gears a little bit, in your music theory book, you listed David Lee Roth on your list of mentors, and I thought that was very interesting, and I wondered what David Lee Roth specifically taught you. I think it had to do with showmanship, so do you remember him telling you specific things when you joined his group, like when you were rehearsing? 

SV: Oh yeah. He was focused on me big time, because I was an important element in his career at that time, and he wanted me to be as best that I could be in his format. And I wanted to be, because I love that whole energy of rock and roll in an arena. But he was a master. Regardless of what anybody might feel about Dave or any artist, that guy was a master. I watched him get on stage and permeate an arena with his ego, and be compelling, and just Dave Roth. Rock and roll fun, you know? But when I joined his band, I came from Frank, and when I was with Frank, your entire focus is on Frank. When I was a musician on his stage, I was oblivious to the audience, to a degree, because you cannot take your eyes off of Frank. He would do anything at any time, and you had to be there. 

Very different, because then when I joined Dave, it was all about engaging a stadium of people, and that’s all rock star shit, you know? And I was very kind of … I was tall and thin and gawky and I had not such charismatic moves, and Dave just recognized this and he worked hard with me. I remember we spent hours and hours at Perkins’ Palace on the stage and he would help me. He’d say, “If you do that, this is what it’s going to look like. Try this.” Of course, a lot of it just came from my hammy nature. I’ve always been kind of like a ham that likes to perform and be extroverted and rock star stuff. It was fun. 

He was able to kind of pull that out of me, and also my physical body, I was a noodle. I never really took care of myself. I walked hunched over like this. My arms were just like string beans, and he kicked my ass, man. I mean, this was every day for almost … Well, almost every day. When we’re off tour, we were running, climbing mountains and working out, and he kicked my ass working out. And he was rigid with his discipline. I started to get the muscularity and physicality that you needed to survive those kinds of tours. So he was very instrumental. He mentored me, so that’s why he’s in the book as a mentor. 

CK: So that’s kind of going from Frank Zappa introvert-type mode, where you’re just playing the music very well, and then you have to learn how to … this music has to be delivered to everybody in the stadium. 

SV: Yeah. Quite a contrast. 

CK: So what would you tell someone, or have you had to tell someone when they join your band, how do you help someone understand that? How would you explain it to a musician that was joining your group? 

SV: Well, my band is more like a hybrid of those two things, in that, yeah, you’ve got to be able to play the music and, regardless of what you do with your body, play the right music and play it with conviction and joy. Anything that happens after that, that’s your world and I don’t care. However a musician in my band wants to express themselves, that’s fine with me, of course unless they’re not nerdy and idiotic, but luckily nobody’s like that. But first and foremost, you’ve got to play the right notes, and I need to take my own advice a little more to heart sometimes, because I can be such a ham that it gets in the way of my playing sometimes. 

CK: Well I suppose the visuals and the sound are both … you’re trying to put them both together to communicate the idea of the music. 

SV: Exactly, and that’s what I meant when I was saying that this whole next year, this year, is all about that, because there’s this elusive state of mind that you can acquire when performing that’s completely present, and that’s when all the good stuff happens. That’s when your natural personality can come out. Everybody’s different and everybody has an authentic personality. Sometimes it’s covered for the vast majority of their life, but when that’s expressed freely, that’s satisfaction. And I’ve made excuses to myself as to why I couldn’t do that in the past, but as time marched on, I’ve discovered that for me as a musician, the most important thing is to strengthen and deepen that connection with the instrument as a performer. And for me, that involves the whole body approach. So that’s what I’m very excited to be working on. And it’s different for everybody. 

CK: I wanted to ask you about your guitar articulations, because I’ve never heard another guitarist who adds so much specific nuance to their playing in coming up with new ideas, and just one example off the top of my head is your unusual style of sliding down to a note. And you did a whole sequence of those in the solo from I Would Love To, and even that main lead part in Teeth of the Hydra has a ton of detail in the beginning. Can you talk about your own thought process of method of adding unique articulations to your parts? How would someone go about being so creative with articulation? Because I feel that is something that makes such a big difference. Someone might be able to play your songs, they play the correct notes, but they wouldn’t play them with the articulations that you do. 

SV: Right, yeah. Yeah, it’s sort of like a well-kept secret, things like dynamics and articulation and phrasing, and I think my fascination with that began when I was young, when I realized that I wanted to compose music, when I was like five or six, four, five or six. I kind of understood the language in a sense, at least what its meaning in making music was. And that fascinated me and I wanted to own it. Some kids, they see a football and they go, “I got this. I’m going to catch that ball every time. I’m going to throw it perfectly. No one’s going to stop me. That’s my interest.” For me, it was little black dots. I don’t know why. I came into the world, which some people just … Everybody comes in with a compunction of sorts to do something. They have an attraction to something that seems interesting and natural, so for me it was the compositional process. 

And I started doing that, and in that process, I started learning all of the tools that are available for you to apply to a melody to make it speak. So things like, I’ll use some classical terms, just articulations, tenutos, staccatos, ornaments, pauses, dynamics. All of these things go into creating the soul of a melody. It’s kind of like the human voice. When I am speaking to you, there’s inflections in my voice that help get my intention across, and there’s pauses and there’s articulations and dynamics, so if I didn’t talk like that, if I was to just sit here and talk like this to you in a monotone-

CK: You’d sound like me.

SV: But you can just … people lose interest. It doesn’t sound like a communication. So, I knew that would be the case on a melody, so when I started writing melodies on the guitar, I think the use of dynamics and articulations started to become natural. Because I like when my guitar melodies or solos sound like sort of the way humans communicate, where there’s phrases, there’s sentences in a paragraph that’s part of a story, so to speak, and it makes the music more intimate when you get very dynamic. 

Lot of times I just blow, you know? There’s no dynamics, there’s no nothing, there’s just kill the guy with the ball, you know what I mean? Because that’s a statement in and of itself, but if you listen to something like And We Are One off of Modern Primitive, that whole solo for me has perhaps the most articulation and attention to phrasing of anything I’ve ever recorded. And that really moves me. So, what I might suggest to answer the other part of your question, recognize that those tools are available to you, and start experimenting with them. 

One way you can do that is create sentences in your head, write them down on a piece of paper. That could be something about your day or anything, and then make melodies in your head and speak them on the guitar. If you’re doing this appropriately, you’ll have to be using articulations and dynamics and stuff that are normally outside of your ballpark. So that’s a good way to do it. Yeah. 

CK: Was that related to when Frank Zappa would call “putting the eyebrows on it,” once you have the right notes? 

SV: Sort of. All the articulations and everything would come before the eyebrows. The eyebrows were basically when you’re playing something that finally sounds like a piece of music, and not just something written on the page that you’re struggling through or you know the notes for. And so when Frank would put the eyebrows on it, all the elements of what his intention was for the melody must manifest in the performance. So all the articulation and everything is there first. Putting the eyebrows on it is making sure that it’s all being performed appropriately. 

CK: If you were teaching a music appreciation class, how would you describe 20th century classical music to help someone appreciate it? 

SV: Contemporary classical music is more experimental than past, and some of it’s very noisy. Some of it’s absolutely brilliant. It’s based on what your interests are, and it’s changing and it’s evolving because of the advent of technology. There’s this one composer that I really like, Magnus Lindberg, Magnus is his name, and he is just this fascinating composer. He’s Finnish, and he has incorporated particular sequential technology into his compositional process and it sounds unique. I have almost all his scores and that’s the kind of stuff that resonates with me, but contemporary classical music, it’s in a flux right now. This is just my perspective. It doesn’t mean anything. It’s just the way I see it. 

Whenever you have a revolution in a musical genre, or anything, it’s usually because somebody came along that was being their authentic personality and standing on the shoulders of everything that came before them but infusing something new and fresh and inspired into the work, and that’s when you get like a Stravinsky or something, and that’s when you get a Jimi Hendrix, you know what I mean? But then what happens is these icons create a body of work and it resonates with people that are maybe perhaps less inspired but they’re good at pantomiming. So they say, “Hm, this is the way it’s produced, this is what it sounds like, these are the kind of chords. I’m going to write music that sounds like that because I like that music, I like that energy, and I know it’ll be accepted in that community, and I really like it.” But it’s a repeat of the past. 

If it’s intellectualized music, it’s always going to be a repetition of the past and nothing new is going to flow into it, so eventually that creates a very insipidness, a heavy insipidness in the music, and you can kind of … every genre this happens to, you hear it in the … like the ’80s where you had Van Halen and AC/DC and all these really authentic rock bands and then people hear it and go, “Oh, I know what they’re doing,” and then they kind of pantomime it and it gets to the point where it just becomes insipid, and then somebody comes along and goes, “No. I’m going to do this.” And that’s when you get a Stravinsky or whatever.

So I think right now in the contemporary classical community, we may be experiencing a lot of that insipidness, because some of that new stuff is just unlistenable, you know? It’s listenable to some people that like that kind of stuff, but less and less people are going to the theaters, the symphonies, the orchestras to see them, and they’re waxing on about the days of yore where it’s all old classical music, which was all by inspired people that then became insipid and changed multiple, multiple, multiple times through the centuries. But the cream usually rises to the top and that becomes the repertoire of orchestras. But it’ll be very interesting to see how the orchestral community evolves in the 21st century. 

CK: I have a psychology or sort of philosophy question for you. 

SV: All right. 

CK: In your career, you’ve interacted with a lot of quote-unquote “high-status people,” and many people would consider you to be one. Could you give someone who might have imposter syndrome advice on dealing with what they perceive as high-status people or low-status people, and how does someone overcome that feeling of being less than? 

SV: They have to realize the simple fact that they have nothing to lose by being purely themselves and everything to gain, but this is a great fear in people because the ego says who you are, the person that you are that you like, your authentic personality that likes certain things and dislikes others, your authentic personality that chooses the things that are engaging to you, the kind of people you like to work with, your creative instincts, the food you like, the clothes you like to wear, all of these things, there’s a naturalness of them in you that’s organic. And when you express that … Because our authentic personality is always of high quality. It’s not that ego part of you that’s dysfunctional, that’s always in fear, that’s blaming the world for what you see as your problem, and it’s that part of you that feels others need to change in order for you to be happy. And it’s also that the ego is that part of you that feels like you need to change in order to make other people happy. 

This is all bullshit. Your authentic personality sees the positive nature in others, in yourself. It doesn’t try to change people. It accepts them for who they are and it accepts you for who you are without making any excuses. It’s being comfortable in your skin and the result of that is joy. The result of that is lack of depression, no stress, because stress is created by the thoughts in yourself about yourself, and other things, but when you decide to be that person without making any excuses regardless of who you’re talking to, you have nothing to lose, trust me. And everything to lose if you don’t, because then you start engaging in relationships superficially, and that never lasts long, because your true self has to come out at some point. 

It’s like a relationship. There’s the honeymoon. Everybody’s nice. Nobody’s being entirely themselves because they’re afraid that they will not be accepted, and that’s the problem that people have with being themselves. The ego tells them, “Who you are is not good enough. You’re not good enough for that person.” Or it loves to also say, “You are much better than that person. You’ve got more talent, you’ve got more money, so this makes you better.” This is all fucked up shit, by the way, and it cuts at the root of your ability to actually freely enjoy life, enjoy yourself and enjoy others, because it tells you, you can’t be you because you’ll fail, you won’t be accepted, you’ll be made fun of, you’ll fall behind, you don’t have the money for it, you don’t have the time, you’re wasting your time. 

This is all bullshit. So, the first step a person needs in order to free themselves of this is the desire to. They have to first have a desire to be themselves. They have to want to be comfortable in life. They have to want peace and they have to want stress-free living and joy. So that, in and of itself, excludes the vast majority of humans. Although that is what they want on a deeper level, there’s too much fear, so the fear doesn’t allow them to find that. And there’s many people that are that. They don’t have a choice, and that’s why, like we talk about Frank, he’s one guy I can point to, to say, “He never placated anybody. He never changed who he was for anybody.” That in and of itself is a book. 

So, the first thing that’s required is an authentic desire to be truly happy and free. And then, the next thing that happens is you start to recognize in yourself when you’re not allowing that. You might have a conversation with somebody that’s your hero or something, or somebody that you deem is lower than you, whatever it is, and then you realize after that, “I was very uncomfortable during that because I wasn’t really myself. Oh, I see. I was afraid of not being me because I want that person to like me, and in order for them to like me, I believe I have to kiss their ass.” Or something. Whatever it is. And this becomes very uncomfortable for the people whose ass is getting kissed also. You lose your respect. 

The second step is recognizing when you’re sabotaging your true, authentic personality. So then, after that, you can, if you stick with it, if you’re not beating yourself up in your head for every discovery of your inauthenticity when you recognize it, then you have an option, you can have a choice, to decide to experiment with just being you, and treating that person as just a person. It’s a practice, because you’ll think you got it and then you’ll meet the president, or, I don’t know, whatever, and it’s a practice. But your freedom is at stake, and with your freedom goes your true, authentic, creative voice, because that belongs to your authentic personality and can only come out when you are that. 

CK: You are that. That’s your old-

SV: (laughs)

CK: That’s what you used to say in your column in the guitar magazine. “You are that.” 

SV: You are that. 

CK: There you go, it just came back up. You have a tour coming up, and can you tell us where you’re going and what that’s about? 

SV: Yeah, at the end of March we kick off in Europe and mostly Eastern Europe, a couple of months, and then we come back to America and I do two and a half months as a second US run, lot of Canadian shows, and then after that it’s Mexico and South America in August, and then September is the rest of the world. Australia, New Zealand, Jakarta, Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, that whole area, and then Japan, China, Africa and India, and then it’s Christmas again. 

CK: Steve, I really appreciate you taking the time for this, and I wish you the best of luck and success with your new album and tour. 

SV: Thank you so much, Carl. It’s always a pleasure. You’re doing great stuff, brother. 

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