Steve Vai Interview (1999)
This article was originally published by INK19 in March 1999.
by Carl King
Steve Vai has recently released a batch of weird, old material (along with some new stuff) called Flexable Leftovers. This made me wonder a few things, and gave me a good excuse to interview him. So I emailed his manager and she forwarded him the questions. Then he wrote back, like a good boy.
Q: You use lots of weird codes and secret messages in your music. Have you ever seen the secret message in Van Halen’s “Hot For Teacher” video? What am I thinking, you were in Dave’s band… Woops.
Q: Flexable was your first independently produced album, which was recorded relatively crudely on an 8-track machine in your house. It was, as I understand, the album that made you quite wealthy and famous for your strangeness later on, which is quite an accomplishment. My question is simply this: What do you think would have been the advantages and disadvantages of remaining independent following Flexable ?
A: Interesting question. One that I think of at times. First off, I don’t know if wealthy is the right word but it supplied me with a steady income for close to 14 years. The advantages would have been that I would have never stopped making my own eclectic style of music. Instead of records like Eat ’em and Smile , SkyScraper , White Snake , etc., I would have some more Vai records in my discography. It’s sort of a catch 22, because if I didn’t join those big rock bands and get the mega-exposure those situations could offer, I may have never sold as many solo records as I have. I’m completely content with the way it has turned out. There has always been a desire in me to play straight ahead rock, and those bands let me exorcise that need. They also gave me the exposure to develop a fan base that have discovered my solo tastes. It has all worked out pretty well.
Q: You compose a variety of styles of music. How do you conceptually organize your music for release without it sounding patched together?
A: Another good question. It’s something that I actually have to focus on. I have a tendency to go off into many directions, but there is a fine thread that runs through each project. Although the music may vary, there is a way that I categorize the music so that each record has an ebb and flow that sounds organic unto itself and not just a mish mash of totally different songs [is that an insult? –Ed]. If you listen to something like Passion and Warfare , there is a production approach and thought behind the music that makes all the stuff seem to work together. Same with Sex and Religion and the rest. It’s hard to compare any one project with the other. Before I recorded Alien Love Secrets , I had a vision and a plan for the music. I knew the songs would sound very different from one another, but I also knew that they would work with one another. Sometimes I create an image or a story and work the music around that. For the new record I’m working on I’m picturing myself as a Wizard that has an uncanny ability to wield a guitar and create songs that are thick and lush with melody and at all times I picture this “Wizard” reining over the music in complete control. It’s a visual that I am making an audible reality.
Q: This question was suggested by a friend of mine who lives on a farm in McKenzie, Tennessee. How do you define your soul, above and beyond consciousness?
A: I, along with many other people, believe that the soul is our consciousness. The soul is pure consciousness without form, sex, etc. It’s not bound by time or any of the things that hamper us on the physical. The only problem is that the soul is imprisoned by the mind, whose primary goal is to keep us ignorant of who and what we truly are, which is pure soul. If we were to completely be in control of the mind, for which it is actually the other way around, we would have the opportunity to go within and discover our real identity and the true home for which the soul belongs, But Nooooo! We are forever caught in the realms of mind and illusions thereof. As we go through life, we have experiences that train us to slowly, and I mean slowly, rise above the meanderings of the mind. It takes countless lives of making mistake after mistake. Through the concept of Karma and reincarnation, which is the basis of the teachings of all the worlds religions, we slowly cleanse our consciousness until we are in control and have the ability to rise above, etc. The soul in it’s true form is a drop from the ocean of the Divine. The Divine, God or whatever, is not imaginable in our present state of awareness. God is beyond the intellect and that’s why he, (I say “he” for lack of a better term) is so elusive. We try to understand God with our intellect and that’s impossible. Sort of like trying to teach advanced mathematics to an ant.
There are ways to experience God and our bodies are the laboratory because he’s in there at the seed of our consciousness. I believe that there are people in the world, Saints, Mahatmas, etc., that experience complete God realization on a daily basis. These experiences are personal and could not be proven or explained (there’s where another rub is). These people come into the world to guide and help those who are ready for it. And naturally there are many freaks out there that are deluded and controlled by the mind and ego and believe they are having God experiences and delude other insecure and searching souls. That’s the perversion of the mind, whose job is to try to keep us off track. The more we play to the mind, the deeper in shit we get. The world is like a big washing machine and what happens is not important. It’s what we get from what happens and how we react to it that is. That’s what we take with us. That’s what shapes our personality, karma, and future. But what does this have to do with playing the guitar… I don’t know, you asked, so Boom, there it is.
Q: Back in the Flexable days, your performance didn’t include a great deal of over-the-top showmanship, and mostly focused on wacky solos, silly lyrics, and odd rhythms. What is your philosophy regarding showmanship, and how has it evolved over the years?
A: I like theatrics, and I like to let the notes move my body and face into contortions. Just feels good. Sometimes I’m not inspired to be theatrical, and sometimes it’s a put on. When it happens organically, it’s magic. In the early days it was all about indulgence on the instrument, and I did not know how to reach an audience even when I was standing in front of one. Through many hours of stage time, I became more aware of the connection between the performer and the audience. I get criticized for being such a ham on the stage, and it used to bother me but now, huh, I just do whatever feels right.
Q: Your success as a rock guitar icon has allowed you, at times, complete freedom to release your esoteric silly music. Do you feel as unrestricted artistically when you release your other albums?
A: Hey, who you calling silly? Why, I remember when I was a little boy… never mind.
Q: How could I arrange to borrow the master tapes for Sex and Religion so I can dissect and study them? Do you have some sort of Mothership Library Card that I could apply for?
A: What songs do you want?
Q: I’m tempted to answer that question.
If you would like more information on this talented young guitar player, he’s got his own web page at: http://www.vai.com. Thanks to Ruta Sepetys. So how was “Henry Fool?”