Steve Vai: A Modern Primitive Interview

Mr. Vai recently reworked and released an album of music he wrote in the mid-80s, between his monumental solo albums Flex-Able and Passion & Warfare. If this music were architecture, it would be a strangely-shaped house indeed. It’s a 13-track collection of everything from Alcatrazz-era hair metal (a band in which he replaced Yngwie Malmsteen) to improvised, maniacal, free-form lounge jazz piano — and it features some of his most “evolved” guitar playing I’ve heard. It’s got the core ideas and style of those early Vai years (he even played several tracks on the first guitar he ever owned, the one featured on the cover of Flex-Able!), but a no-limits, mature compositional reinterpretation and expansion on those free creative ideas.

Portions of the music on this record could be considered cheesy these days, and even difficult to sit through, but that’s what you get with an unfiltered musician that can do whatever he wants with his ideas — ideas that are now 30 years old! But to be clear, a huge element of this record is Vai at his most developed, with his current playing abilities and compositional skills. This music is not guitar centric, and is actually quite band-oriented, using his original band from those days: The Classified. A welcome return of Stu Hamm and Chris Frazier!

Steve goes down in my own personal history as being the musician I have listened to more than any other. I have a sick obsession with the album Sex & Religion, and I like to think I have a unique appreciation for his music outside of his day job as a guitar god. My ego says I really am listening closely!

Anyway, Modern Primitive is that special sort of personal album that requires liner notes and headphones. Unfortunately for me, I only have the headphones. I emailed Steve to seek more understanding of what I was hearing.

1.) After all these years, your playing has continued to develop (I can honestly say without any attempt at flattery that your playing has only gotten better), and one of those areas seems to be your use of string bending and slides. Future Primitive has a few sections in which that skill is expressed to an almost “inhuman” degree, to the point where it has departed from a strict chromatic tonality and rhythm. It starts to sound fretless, with its “liquid” nature, and it’s a strangely out of tune but good sound. Can you tell me a bit about what goes into that technique?

Thanks for the kind words. I’ve always tried to keep an eye on evolving my style a little here and a little there and I’m aware that I can, anyone can if they want. But it’s nice to hear that someone is noticing. If you get to read the liner notes to Modern Primitive it indicates when certain things were recorded but all the solo’s were done this year.

I take various approaches to solos. Sometimes I just wing it and sometimes I do various takes and comp them together but I’m always looking for quick things that I may not have heard myself do before. In many cases I sit with a solo section and take it piece by piece and just wait for something fresh to happen, and then I grab the idea and exaggerate it. There’s a track called “And We Are One”, it’s the 7th song. On that solo I broke down each section and was not satisfied until I heard something that spoke with a new kind of voice. This approach revealed some pretty obtuse whammy bar techniques. I still feel like I’m scratching the surface of it all though, and I guess that’s a good place to be.

2.) On Pink and Blows Over Pt. 3, you played in a style I’ve never heard you do before. It sounds very “jazz saxophone” like. (I am not a jazz guy so that is the best way I can explain it.) I actually thought maybe I was hearing a Bumblefoot or Guthrie Govan guest appearance. I don’t have the liner notes, but as it goes on, I realized it is you. How were you able to get into that type of phrasing and technique, possibly not having played it since your Berklee days? It sounds so off-the-cuff and rough and wild. And can you tell me what type of harmony that is based on?

That’s very perceptive on your part for sure. And your’e right, I basically haven’t played that way since my Berklee days. That song was written while I was at Berklee. I like certain types of Jazz when it doesn’t sound to “done by numbers” so to speak. I like playing over changes but jazz changes always sounded a little too conventional for me. But vwalla, that’s my ode to jazz fusion.

In regards to the harmony, I’m really just playing over the changes. There’s the substructure of the chords and the notes that work on top of the chords and for much of jazz, it ends there. But in my minds ear I heard myself playing over the changes without sounding as though I was following the rigidness of the chord structures, meaning playing scales and arpeggios that just outline the chord changes. The changes go by very quick and I wanted the notes in the solo to be the boss, not what the chords dictated, although they are in perfect alignment with each other.

So it was a fun exercise, to create a solo that sounds free, reflects the melody that is at the foundation of all three movements, and also shred (sort of) in a way that doesn’t sound clinical. Which is easy for me because I’m really not a very clean player. There’s a visceral nature to the way I play that has a lot of shmuts in it. So it started as an inner vision and then I worked until it sounded the way I was envisioning it.

Once again, Thanks for noticing. I’ve been doing a lot of press and most people do not pick up on these little nuances.

3.) Do you have any sort of creative filter that might try to discourage you from releasing a 13-minute track like Pink and Blows Over Pt. 2? How do you plan and separate your ideas for a “mainstream” Steve Vai record from an album like this?

In some ways Modern Primitive is a guilty pleasure. When Tommy Mars comes to your studio and unleashes his brilliance, it would be foolish to filter it. What he did on that track is one of the sacred things in life I live for so it was a pure joy putting it together. The difficult part was making it only 13 minutes because he gave me over 3 hours of stuff.

And although I’ve never considered any of my records to be mainstream, I believe i know what you mean. The young Steve Vai, 22-26 that basically recorded most of the tracks and wrote virtually all of the music, was a pretty naive, innocent kid when it came to anything that resembled mainstream and what he wanted to do. When I decided to unearth Modern Primitive and finish it I wanted to honor the spirit of that younger me by continuing with a similar naiveté.

But oddly enough, I have ideas for records that actually could be considered mainstream, but still excite me. I guess time will tell.

4.) Which tracks did you play the classic Flex-Able Strat on? Any choice sections where we should listen for it, aside from Mighty Messengers? Was any of the actual audio on this record from way back?

The songs that I used my original sticker Strat on that I recorded back in the day are, Upanishads, Fast Note People, Lights Are On, No Pockets. Mighty Messengers and the Lost chord used that Strat but the parts were recorded this year.

5.) I want to ask what “Pink And Blows Over” is about, especially Pt. 1. It seems to be about someone’s pet, or a mystical creature, or both. Do you want to reveal where the name originated, or is that going to remain a mystery?

Ha, well, I used to write a ton of lyrics back in those days. I would just do automatic writing, meaning I would just write down whatever came to mind in that moment. Sometimes this yielded some interesting things. I would not allow myself to alter things much.
I would say that perhaps 65% of the lyrics to PABO that ended up on the record were taken from the original writing. I tweaked the rest to taste recently. What it’s about… hmmmm, I’m not sure really. probably all of the above.

6.) Mighty Messengers sounds like it might have been a leftover from the batch of songs you did with Alcatrazz. Any chance that is true? I can totally imagine Graham Bonnet singing it. By the way, how much influence did you have on Graham’s singing style back then? I hear a lot of parallels between his singing and Devin’s singing on Sex & Religion.

Another interesting observation. I actually considered presenting Mighty Messengers to Alcatrazz but I never did because I felt that the way I wanted it to be when it was completed needed to be honored.

I enjoyed working with Graham during the Alcatrazz days and one of the things I enjoyed the most was the way we wrote songs together. I would come up with the riffs and sometimes offer melodies to the lyrics but he was usually very good at finding an instinctual melody. I did not record his vocals on that album so he escaped the trauma of having me on the other side of the glass and punching him through vocals.

With most other singers that sing on my music I can be pretty heavy handed with the pitch, timing, phrasing etc. But when Devin goes for it, you just let him go.

One of my favorite things on Modern Primitive is what Devin did to “The Lost Chord”. I sent him the fully recorded track and asked him to just put the vocals on the first few verses, but if he had any ideas or desire to put anything on the rest of the track, by all means. I was completely stunned with what he sent back. It showed me that his musical instincts are more finely tuned then what I would have had him do if I was on the other side of the glass. Live and learn.

7.) This album is all over the place, since it is a collection of music composed long ago, reworked, and updated. It has so many styles. It makes me wonder: is there a type of music (or a piece of music) that you personally find “cheesy” and unlistenable? What is Steve Vai’s Musical Kryptonite? Or does it need to remain a secret, so someone doesn’t discover it and sell it to Batman?

There isn’t really any music that I can’t stomach or I feel is unlistenable… but country music comes close at times.

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Buy this album on Amazon and be privy to this elite thing the kids are calling “Liner Notes.”

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