From the Archive: Steve Vai Discusses His 1996 Album, 'Fire Garden'
Will you have to adjust your approach to performing?
Yes, I'll have to adjust my entire approach to performing. Normally, when I'm on tour, I can do 10 shows in a row with no days off. I prefer it that way. But you can't do that when you're the singer. Once I get through one song, I'm hoarse! It takes so much for me to sing those songs, so I’m still learning how to sing properly.
One of the reasons I'm singing on record at all is because I met this guy named Warren Barigian, who is more than just a vocal coach; his approach is unique and very conceptual. He deals with something he calls vocal biometrics. He believes that the reason people can't express themselves with their voices, or even in other ways, is because of psychological hang-ups and traumas that exist in our psyche. This is, of course, the basis of modern psychology. Through this intense series of exercises, which includes breathing techniques, movements and physical manipulations, certain anxieties and hang-ups are released.
It's absolutely frightening. It takes weeks to get over one session. But addressing these issues deep in your psyche affects the way you sing, the way you speak, everything. Barigian has worked with a lot of famous vocalists, like Meat Loaf, Tom Petty, Cher and others who've experienced serious problems with their voices. His training is the reason I can sing at all, because I was very apprehensive about singing and very intimidated. I'm still far from being a professional singer.
That's probably why you spent so many years becoming a motherfucker on the guitar.
Sure! No one has to tell me how psychologically damaged I am to play the guitar the way I do!
For me, the music on "There's a Fire in the House" conjures up the image of a very confused person, screaming at the top of his lungs.
I'm so glad you picked up on that. It was exactly my intent. The song is the story of a kid who's trapped in a house that's on fire. He wakes up on account of this big blast, which is the first sound you hear, and then, hearing sirens, realizes that the house is on fire. He runs from one floor to another, and that is reflected in the way the music progresses. The solo evokes his escape from a floor that has become engulfed in flames to the next level, with the playing becoming more intense all the while. Part of the music suggests the flames speaking to him.
The inspiration behind the tune is a bit existential. But much like a dream, this is the way the story unfolds. In building up the solo I thought, "What does a person who has nowhere else to go feel as he approaches the top of a burning house?" That sheer panic is expressed with that freaked-out guitar riff, especially when the second guitar comes in and the two guitars start banging off each other.
How did you get that guitar-on-fire sound?
There's some serious processing going on. I sent the signal through an Eventide DSP 4000, using a patch called "dead battery," and tweaked it to get more of the "burning" sound. After recording about an hour of that stuff, I went through and found the right " burn " for that section of the tune. I wanted the guitar to sound like it was on fire, like it was exploding into flames. That device did the trick.
The very first main theme, the 7/4 figure, has a very grandiose quality that is on the scale of a movie soundtrack.
It's part of my " if I were king of the forest" mentality. I wanted to open the record and then the live shows, too-with something that was thematic and grand. I got a feeling for that from all the arena shows I did with David Lee Roth and Whitesnake. When you're in an arena and have to take control of an audience that's as big as 20,000 people, you have to suck them into your world through the music. This was something that I envisioned working with an audience of that size.
So, the size of the music is a reflection of the size of the audience.
Yeah, if that 's what you're going for. There's also the technique of bringing the audience down into real intimacy, where you try to speak to each member individually. The song " Hand On Heart" is along those lines.
You've often demonstrated your attraction to grand, movie-like themes. Where does t his come from?
I like the idea of creating tapestries, or scenarios, with the music, whether it's with improvisation or composition. Writing movie music is not as easy as sitting in your apartment in Santa Monica and trying to write it blind, though. Scoring a film involves working with the director's vision and dealing with the whole scheme of the film. The music should not be the number one thing; it has to work with the impression of the film. The music can help create a character's personality, and it can also carry the plot.
What are some of the films you've scored?
I scored a film called PCU, which was a comedy, and I worked on Bill And Ted's Bogus Journey, Encino Man, Dudes and Crossroads. Right now, I'm putting together a compilation record of my film music. It'll be a fun record; there's some wicked-ass guitar stuff on there.
Did you enjoy working with Ry Cooder on Crossroads?
That was easily one of the greatest one-on-one musical experiences of my entire life. At one session , he picked up my guitar and started to play. He began stomping his foot, and that became this iron beat that was so bluesy and so cool. Then he played some of the greatest stuff I've ever heard . I felt like a dwarf around that guy.
At one session with Ry, I just couldn't grasp where the "one" was. It was like when I played "Bamboozled By Love" with Frank [Zappa]. That song wasn't complicated, but I just kept hearing the "one" in the wrong place . When it happened with Ry, he got so pissed off, he tore me a new asshole! It was really embarrassing, but it was really funny at the same time.