Steve Vai interview
December 19, 1997
by John Perry
Steve Vai just released Merry Axemas (Epic Records) which is 11 tracks of traditional Christmas tunes performed by some of the biggest names in guitar rock (including the likes of Jeff Beck, Joe Perry, Steve Morse, Joe Satriani, Alex Lifeson, and Vai himself). Steve got his start in the rock music business when Frank Zappa hired him to do transcriptions in 1978. Frank discovered him when Steve (as a major Zappa fan attending Berklee School of Music) transcribed the song Black Page and mailed it to Frank. Vai joined Zappa’s band in 1980. He toured extensively with Zappa’s band and appeared on several Zappa albums. Steve went on to replace Yngwie Malmsteen in Alcatrazz, and also played with David Lee Roth and Whitesnake. He has several solo records, the latest being Fire Garden, and has worked on many movie soundtracks. More currently, Vai staged two impressive tours under the name G3 with his pal Joe Satriani.
[Rock Notes] What was your inspiration for the Merry Axemas project?
[Steve Vai] The inspiration was hearing the guitar being played by brilliant players and having them perform beautiful, timeless Christmas melodies in their own world…You can really hear each player’s personality in their performance.
[RN] It’s a very diverse group of musicians.
[SV] It really is and everybody rose to the occasion. It was actually very easy to put this project together. I wrote a list of musicians that I thought would be fantastic and was very depressed that I couldn’t make it a quadruple record because there are so many great players. But the one’s that we got were very enthusiastic because it’s a real piece of cake for them. When you approach a project like this you don’t have to worry about creating an entire record or pleasing many people. It’s really very simple. It gives each artist an opportunity to approach a song with the instrument that they adore and not have to worry about touring on it, or going out and doing tons of press, or big budgets that have to encompass records with hits and all that sort of stuff.
[RN] You said that there were others on your wish list and that you could have made a four volume record, so do you think there will be a volume 2?
[SV] I believe so. It’s just a matter of getting everybody’s schedule where they can do it. I started this a year and a half ago. It takes a lot of time to get these kind of players together. Logistically it’s a nightmare. But because it was such a special project, and everybody was so interested in it, they made time.
[RN] Was there anybody in particular on that wish list that you could mention?
[SV] Yeah, I tried to get Jimmy Page and he was busy making a record with Robert Plant. So he’s forgiven. And Eric Clapton’s recording schedule is booked up for the next couple of years. And I believe there’s like four Hendrix tracks that the estate is in control of and I tried to get one but they didn’t want to give it up. So I was really bummed about that.
[RN] We loved what you did with the Vince Giraldi song. [Christmas Time Is Here from the movie, Merry Christmas, Charlie Brown.]
[SV] It’s a great song. There’s heart strings on it, you know? When you’re growing up…you waited all year for those Peanuts specials to come on, because they’re so cool.
[RN] I was wondering about G3, we got to check you guys out this past summer in Hartford, will there be another tour?
[SV] Well, we’re really happy about the way it went. You know, when we went around the first time, we weren’t exactly sure how things were going to turn out. But it turned out really well…So we hope to keep it alive in the future, in whatever permeation it turns into…We’ve got offers now to go all around the world with it…so we’re checking out our options.
[RN] We did check out the Steve Vai web site and were wondering if you get involved with it at all?
[SV] I am now…There’s a lot of stuff we want to do to it. It’s just going to take a little time. I’ve been working for a little while on the site now but none of it has been implemented yet. I’ve got somebody coming in and they’re going to sort of reconstruct it.
[RN] So do you also have a chance to surf the ‘Net?
[SV] If there’s something I need to find out, it’s a wealth of information. For instance, I’m interested in honey bees…We have a pretty big property and bees are the best way to pollunate fruit trees. So I went on the Internet, and I surfed, and I found out all about honey bees. And I ordered some for our back yard. The Internet is endless.
[RN] What are your plans for the coming year? Are you really on hiatus now?
[SV] I am and I’m not. I’m always working full force, really. I’ll be working on my web site for a little while. And I’m working on putting together and releasing a whole bunch of CD’s including material from the past and some new stuff. It’s like new old stuff. For example, I’m re-releasing Flexable – my first solo record – remastered in it’s original form. And then I’m re-releasing Flexable Leftovers, which was an EP, with some additional material. I’m licensing and re-releasing the record I did with the rock band Alcatrazz [Disturbing The Peace], and maybe there’s some live stuff from Japan that I’ll be able to release from that also.
[RN] So, the Alcatrazz record will be remastered?
[SV] Yes, it will be remastered, if I can find those tapes. And then I’ve got three volumes of CD’s called Archives. What it is is various tracks that I’ve recorded in the past with other artists that are obscure or hard to find, some of the early stuff I did as a session player, and some newer stuff like a song I contributed to the West Side Story soundtrack [Songs of West Side Story]. It was a brilliant album, and I did a piece on there with Chick Corea’s band. I’ve probably got like four records-worth of stuff.
[RN] Is it going to be a box set or separate releases?
[SV] Every thing is going to be released individually and then in a box with a bonus CD. The bonus CD is really obscure vocal things. Another CD…is one that’s going to contain all the music from all of the films that I’ve written music for and scored. That’s going to be really cool. I think my fans will really get a kick out of that because it’s got some absolutely extreme guitar stuff on it…real odd orchestrations and sonic soundscapes, so to speak. It’s not pop.
[RN] No, we wouldn’t expect that.
[SV] But after I get all that stuff out, then I’ll have a new record come out–a proper release of new material. I’m planning on making the most devastating guitar record I’ve ever thought of. The tentative title is Where The Wild Things Are.
[RN] So you already have some tracks down?
[SV] Well, I’m starting to formulate concepts in my head. I want this record to be real different. I want it to be intense, yet beautiful. I want to keep it simple, no guitar overdubs or stuff like that. What I’m trying to do is formulate an image, that’s how you come up with things. You set up parameters, you psych yourself into an image in your mind of something, and then slowly the elements come together. Right now I’m starting to just take pieces of the elements and formulate this sound in my head to compose the record. I know it sounds odd but that’s how I do it.
[RN] No, it’s really interesting to hear how that works. Do you think you’ll be playing with some of the same people on this record as you did on Fire Garden?
[SV] It’s hard to say because they were great players and the tour was really great and they’re sweet guys and all and great to tour with but they’re very talented musicians and I don’t know when I’m going to need them. They may have gigs again by that point. So, hopefully.
[RN] It was cool to see you hook up with Mike Keneally for the G3 tour. How did you guys hook up?
[SV] I had known Mike from the Zappa connection. He’s just obviously a fantastic musician. He really is a virtuoso on both keyboards and guitar. His new solo record, Sluggo, is just great. It’s really stunning.
[RN] You worked with him on Zappa’s Universe and won a grammy award. What was that like?
[SV] Well, it had it’s joys and euphorias and it’s depressing side too. There was a lot of record company red tape and there was the fact that Frank had just gone public with his illness. But performing the music, and performing Frank’s music, has always been a joy to me. And performing it with that kind of a band, with those musicians, was really a treat. Doing it for Frank, as a tribute, was also a real treat. It’s kind of divine irony because I had spent a good part of my career focused on trying to impress Frank with the way I performed his music and a month after he passed away I won that Grammy. It’s kind of ironic.
[RN] Since it’s the holiday season, can you think of any Christmas memories of Frank?
[SV] My favorite Frank Christmas story – I was sitting in Frank’s living room once and Frank’s son Ahmet had put a tree up. The decorations were sitting around and nobody was around to decorate it. So Frank’s secretary started decorating the tree and Frank was helping her decorate the tree but his way of helping was he would sit in his chair and say, “take that one and put it there, and move that one a little over there…” And she said, “that’s not how you decorate a tree!” And Frank said, “that’s how I decorate a tree!”
[RN] How did you hook up with Ibanez for your signature series?
[SV] I designed a guitar which sort of fit all my weird idiosyncracies and I needed a company to manufacture it…I sent the design out to a bunch of companies…and Ibanez was really the only one who made the right guitar.
[RN] Will you ever work with Terry Bozzio again?
[SV] You never know…I’ve got these tapes of Terry when we set up his drums in this huge cement warehouse and he just soloed and it was fantastic. He’s a legend…he’s the most musical percussionist I’ve ever met.