Steve Vai Discusses Musical Evolution and Perspective

Steve Vai brushes up on his wizardry skills.
He dd not, however, attend Hogwarts.
(Photo credit: Larry Dimarzio.)

Grammy-winning guitarist Steve Vai always likes to push boundaries, and in some case that means pushing the buttons of his more conservative music listeners. But he revels in the chance to try new things, as one can hear on his new album The Story Of Light, which includes influences as diverse as the blues, metal and Hawaiian slack-key guitar. The coupling of “John The Revelator” and “Book Of The Seven Seals” has certainly raised a few eyebrows among fans. The heavy, bluesy first track builds from a vocal sample of the original song as performed by Blind Willie Johnson, and then transforms in the second piece into hokier sounding gospel. And this was done on purpose, even if some people have balked at it. Adding to the album’s diversity are guest appearances from singers Aimee Mann and Beverly McClellan and harpist Deborah Henson-Conant.

Vai spoke with A.D.D. about keeping an open mind and expanding one’s musical vision.

There are many different musical styles showcased on The Story Of Light. When you do an album like this — where you go from the bluesy “John The Revelator” to the languid “Creamsicle Sunset” to the intense “Gravity Storm” — do you consciously think of all the connections between the different styles of music?
Yeah, I do. It’s interesting because you say there are different styles, and in a sense there are, but really I try to stay unstylistic in a conventional sense. Where this is a country song, this is a blues song, this is a rock song, this is a classical song — that would be very stylistic. What I try to do, and what I’m compelled to do really, is just try to create the music that is really interesting to me. It just seems that as a result my records are very diverse, and the sounds are dynamically diverse as you mentioned. You’d never hear a song like “The Story Of Light” and “No More Amsterdam” on the same record. Yet a lot of times, as a result of that kind of thing, it polarizes fans and critics because some people really like one particular approach. Some people like “Gravity Storm” and “Weeping China Doll,” some people like the “No More Amsterdam” kind of thing, some people really like compositional stuff like “The Story Of Light” or “The Law”. I can’t help it, I like it all. For any artist, even when they get pretty diverse, if they stamp the music with their inner mojo so to speak, there’s this thread that runs through it all that’s inexplicable. That is definitely present in every one of my records. There are songs on each one of my records that you never expect to be with some of the other songs.

This axe is great for shredding and as a deadly weapon.
(Photo credit: Larry Dimarzio.)

I think that a majority of people are stamped with their tastes by their early to mid-20s. Some artists try to keep growing as they get older. I imagine the Steve Vai who played with Whitesnake in the late ’80s would probably not make an album like this. It’s part of the maturation process where you’re going across the board musically.
The thing is when you make a record it’s like a little snapshot of who you were at the time, and if you look at the record that I made back then before I was in Whitesnake, it was Passion & Warfare. It’s as diverse, dynamic and articulate as Story Of Light, it’s just that as you go through life you have life experiences that can change your perspective on things, and your creativity is based on your perspective. So it’s natural that any artist’s work will change through time.

Some people don’t.
Some people don’t, and they’re comfortable. That’s okay. A lot of the fans of those artists don’t want them to change. You don’t want Elton John to go and do an instrumental prog record.

A lot of Judas Priest fans didn’t get their last album, Nostradamus. Whether or not you liked the lyrics, they expanded themselves musically more than most bands in the genre would.
Fans can be quirky. Now with the Internet especially, everybody has the right to be a critic so to speak, and fans can be very polarized. The dynamic from the fan group is based on a lot of different things. You take a band like Priest, they’re a particular thing. They deliver record after record of high energy, good rock music, and for some fans that’s all they want. If they veer from that, it’s not the band that misfired, it’s the fan’s ability to adapt, that’s all.

Almost ten years ago we did an interview for Goldmine magazine about your label, Favored Nations. It seems like you’re comfortable now having your niche and having this label. The commercial considerations for other artists don’t seem to matter so much anymore, it’s about the live experience.
If you chase after record sales as an artist, you can kind of win the game if you have the insight for it, but it becomes really tiring and becomes a bore because you could very well be compromising your creative integrity.

Royal faux-pas?
(Photo credit: Larry Dimarzio.)

Harpist Deborah Henson-Conant plays on a track on your new album called “Mullach A’tSi”. This is the type of song I’m usually drawn to as opposed to the obvious singles. It’s like when I interviewed Journey and listened to their greatest hits then went into the deeper catalog cuts. Those were so much different than what I’d been exposed to previously.
Isn’t it nice when that happens? It’s one of the beautiful things about this virtually infinite catalog of music that we all have at our disposable. You can hear something that’s completely off your radar and really inspires you and gives you a whole different quality. That happened to me when I heard my first Tom Waits record. It changed my whole life. Or my first Stravinsky ballet.

How old were you?
With Stravinsky, I was in high school, and with Tom Waits, I was in my late 30s. I’d been hearing his name for years and years and years, and I thought people were referring to John Waite, who was in Bad English. I never put the pieces together, and then one time a very well-respected music critic friend of mine asked if I’d heard the new Tom Waits record Mule Variations. Right then and there I knew I’d gotten something mixed up because this guy would never talk about John Waite this way. So I went out and bought Mule Variations, and it stopped me dead in my tracks. Since then, I collect every single thing I can from Tom Waits. It’s happened with other artists too.

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