Wild Child at Heart - A conversation with Steve Vai

If you haven’t heard of Steve Vai, you probably think a Fender should be attached to a car. Talking to the rather articulate legendary guitar virtuoso, we discuss (his project) 'Where the Wild Things Are', beekeeping and his dear musical brother-in-arms, Devin Townsend.

Steve Vai, former member of Whitesnake, Alcatrazz, Frank Zappa’s band, G3 and a host of other rock music projects is lauded as one of contemporary rock music’s 'virtuoso' guitarists, earning the respect of peers, fans and other musicians for his high level of performance discipline and creativity, and his prolific songwriting over thirty years.

Interviewing him from his home in Los Angeles, CA, I confess to the master guitarist that I don’t know what the time is. Living in Atlanta, GA for the past three months and coming back to Melbourne where daylight savings has just rolled around, it almost feels like night is the new day.

Charmingly, Steve tells me not to worry about it. “When you’re on tour for so long, you forget what day it is.”

Luckily for Steve, he can keep his head on straight now that he “doesn’t have any plans” for tours.

“I have nothing on the horizon, really,” he confesses. “My next ‘feat of strength’ is going to be going into the studio, writing and recording a studio record and I’m thinking of shooting it in a particular way, that when it's done it’ll be a unique project.”

Although he remains tight-lipped about the intricacies of the film portion of the venture, he does see another tour in the works after the conclusion of his studio effort.

“Yeah, I think after that it’ll be time for a pretty robust tour,” he says. “You know, as a guitar player, I’m very fortunate that I have a following all around the world – I’m obviously not a pop star – but there are people all over the world that love the guitar.

“Besides from doing all the conventional places like Europe, America, South America and even Australia and Japan, I get to go to all of these really interesting places like Eastern Europe and Russia, China. The really weird places like New Zealand – just kidding!” he laughs.

“Its always a gas when you’re walking through the streets of Turkey and you see a poster of yourself and you go to a gig and it's packed. When I do plan a tour it’s usually long and extensive and life-altering. I’ve been touring for thirty years; when I’m on tour I’m at home.

“I go on tour and come back older,” he adds.

The product of one of his many tours, his new live release entitled Where the Wild Things Are (read our CD review here, DVD review here) is indeed a throwback to the children’s classic of the same name, written by Maurice Sendak. What he didn’t realise was that a major movie based on the book was nearing release in the U.S.

“I always thought it would be a good title for something but I just never got around to it,” Vai says. “So finally when I was working on this, I was going to call it Paint Me Your Face but at the last minute, I said ‘You know what? I’m going to go with Where the Wild Things Are.

“I’ve always liked it, it's always had a ring to it and a certain mystique, so we called the book publishers and got stuff straightened out with them, and I started to put it into motion; printing artwork and what have you. Then I find out Warner is releasing [that] film a week after my DVD comes out. I thought, ‘Well, that’s ironic!’” he laughs, taking it in good humor.

The jokes keep coming as I ask if there’s something he hasn’t achieved yet that he’d like to tackle. He replies, deadpan: “Retire.” A pause. “I’m joking,” he laughs, before answering truthfully:

“My problem is I have too many things I want to do. My biggest challenge is letting go of these things in my heart because I’ll know I’ll never get to them. So, as a result when you’re younger you’re full of crazy ambition and like most guys I write list after list of things I’m going to accomplish.

“Then reality sets in – although I’m very satisfied with everything I have accomplished, I never expected to accomplish so much – I probably have four more lifetimes of ideas. But obviously it’s not going to happen. Over the past few years I’ve just been prioritizing in my head of what I want to do and let go of the things I won’t be able to.” 

One of the things he was able to do was work and “mentor” one of the creative giants in the metal world, Devin Townsend. Singing vocals on his 1993 “band” record Sex and Religion, Townsend was only a teenager and barely utilising his gargantuan potential in the role he was given, as Vai recalls.

“When I started working with Devin he had so much raw talent, an incredible vocal range and this profound intensity to him. I did not realise his true musical gift as an independent songwriting entity. He was basically a little colorful bird trapped in a little cage with me, because I was having him do my stuff.

“I think he learned some stuff from me as far as producing and whatnot, but Devin hit the ground running – he shot off like a rocket. He was holding in a lot of creative energy and just exploded.

“I mean, I can count on one crippled hand people I think that are truly genius in this business and I genuinely count Devin as one of them. His music is inspired, it’s melodically deep, and it’s got a lot of torment, but at the same time, a lot of beauty. Its amazing to me, it’s absolutely phenomenal to hear how rich and heavy and intense he can be.”

Vai asks me something; “Have you ever heard Alien [by Devin’s ‘industrial’ project Strapping Young Lad] ?”

I reply that I have. “Well, that was just ridiculous,” he says as praise. “Even the Devin Townsend [Band] stuff, like Ocean Machine… I love it. I have the new [Devin Townsend Project] record that he sent me...it's gorgeous.

“He really flourished and he’s just an inspired musician. He was one of those new breeds of musicians that was into expressing a lot of intensity and anger. I mean, I got him to sing the word “baby” in the song In My Dreams With You… I don’t think he’d ever use that in one of his songs, unless it was the kind that shit their pants and cry.”

Noted for his involved, musically literate and intricate songs its often a question as to whether Steve is writing from the heart or writing to “push the boundaries” of rock guitar. To Steve, no aspect takes precedence – to him, the two are interchangeable.

“Well, when you’re writing from the heart, so to speak you’re pushing your emotional boundaries. I try to push all the boundaries; I try to move forward and evolve what I’m doing; it’s fun. It’s part of the creative process. It’s one of the exciting, challenging things about doing something creative.

“To re-create yourself, to go in a different direction… I pull a lot of my elements along with me, I’m not totally different every time I do something. There’s things that you’ll hear in all my songs, to be able to find that thread that runs through them – that inner musical consciousness, so to speak.

“But, whenever I start a new project I go back and listen to some of the stuff I’ve done in the past and I say to myself: ‘You can’t be doing this any more, you have to write different riffs and you can’t build your songs around the same motifs.’ Its scary because It’s hard to top yourself – as it would be for anybody. It's like running ten miles and running quicker and quicker and quicker until you realise, maybe I can’t run any quicker?

“So when that happens, you have to focus on something else like your style. When you get older you have to figure out how to run without getting injured. Maybe you’re getting slower but you’re enjoying the scenery more. Things evolve; your perspectives change. Your abilities change. As you play intense guitar music your physical abilities are changing as you get older too. Maybe I can’t play as fast as I used to, which doesn’t bother me at all, because it beats your hands to shreds after a while. I try and look deeper into phrasing; to get the most out of a note, to make it speak differently. These are the kind of things I try to craft more and more.”

Something that’s little known about Vai is his foray into beekeeping, owning his own hive and tending to it whenever he has downtime. One has to imagine how a rock guitarist ended up finding such a hobby.

“Well, me, my wife and my kid moved into this property that had like, two acres; and it had all this dead stuff on it because the guy who owned it before us hadn’t moved in for ten years. I wanted to plant a whole lot of fruit trees, so I did a little research. I found that honey bees are fabulous for pollinating.

“It’s really easy to keep them and it’s a really simple and enjoyable hobby. One colony turned in to two and then it turned into seven. It’s only a couple of hours a month, but it’s a special moment I look forward to. Once a year we do a honey harvest and it’s a lot of fun.”

Despite being called “a lot of things,” Steve believes there is “truth in all of” his labels that the media and others have pinned him with - rock virtuoso, metal virtuoso, guitar songwriter - and everything in between. Vai, in his own words, sums it up succinctly for us.

“What would I call myself? Well, I would call myself a work in progress.”