From the Archive: Steve Vai Discusses His 1996 Album, 'Fire Garden'
Getting back to "There's a Fire in the House": it seems as though you adopted a cinematic approach to the music, even though there's no film. The music tells a very specific story that runs through the entire piece.
That's true. Since there's no film, though, I don't have to worry about dialogue getting in the way of the everything! [laughs]
Overall, I think the essence of Fire Garden is that you complement the out-and-out virtuosic intensity of the album with a sense of humor and a sense of balance.
I like to keep the sense of humor in there. I like intensity in music, though sometimes when I'm listening to a particularly intense record by some band, I'll get the impression that these are some severely tormented , miserable people. This isn't to say that I'm not tormented myself in some ways, but I try to keep it fun and comical, too. That's another important component of my personality.
Did you put the music on this record together with any specific goals in mind?
When I started out, the name of the record was Fire Coma, and I'd actually written a script. This music was intended as the soundtrack, or, more accurately, a blow-by-blow report of the script.
Some years ago, you suggested that you were going to make a film. Is Fire Garden that project?
Yes. A problem I had with the record, though, was that it was too dark, and I didn't really want to go in that direction only. I wanted to put "Warm Regards" on there, and I wanted to include "Dyin' Day," a song I'd worked up when I was collaborating with Ozzy. I didn't want the record to be just Mongolian metal, and I didn't want it to be just like Sex and Religion. So, I started to move away from the idea of the Fire Coma script, and the record turned into what it is.
Were some of the tunes on Alien Love Secrets from the original Fire Coma project?
Yeah. Stuff like "Bad Horsie" and "Kill the Guy with the Ball" were in that same, heavy vein. I like doing heavy rock, but when I do a whole record of heavy stuff, it gets too intense and loses a certain edge. I wanted to keep the record musical, listenable and well balanced -- to be stuff I'd like to listen to -- something musically sound with cool guitar playing, vocal material, plus some things to get a laugh out of. I feel like I've achieved these goals to the best of my ability. The record 's not focused in one direction.
Is that you playing the insane piano part on the "Angelfood" movement from the "Fire Garden Suite"?
Yes, but that was all programmed. I wrote that whole thing out and then assigned it to a sequencer, using a sampled piano. I have a good working knowledge of the piano, but while I can write something as complicated as that for the instrument, there's no way I could sit down and play it. The sequencing software is called Vision, and it allows you to really get in there and sound "human." Believe it or not, it didn't take that long to put the piano part together. What did take a long time was editing all of the bee sounds together at the beginning of the tune.
How did the piece evolve?
The whole thing began with the thought of a live performance. I start with one instrument, like the electric sitar, and then, when I'm done with it, the sound of that instrument hangs over into the next section, where I switch to an acoustic guitar. Then I move to the electric guitar and play on top of sequenced sounds that hold over from the other instruments. That idea was the seed, and as I progressed, the piece metamorphosed.
When I was a kid, I went to see the [fusion] band Return To Forever, and it was a thoroughly musical event. I want to add my own twist to the presentation of the music, by having the performance hit you on a visual level, too. It's got to sound good, look good and be entertaining in every way it can.
"Tales from the Black Forest," a guitar/piano duet on AI DiMeola's Land Of the Midnight Sun album, is reminiscent of the section of the " Fire Garden Suite" you just described.
That tune was actually the inspiration for the piano/guitar thing. I wish I could have gotten [RTF keyboardist] Chick Corea to play on it!
You do some major burning on electric sitar on this tune. Was it difficult to play such complicated stuff on what must be a relatively unfamiliar instrument?
Well, it's a completely written part; I wrote it to be played on that instrument. The cool thing about that sitar part is that it's highly processed. It's going through four different amplifiers, spread and delayed in a certain way so it sounds like four different instruments. It's also doubled with strings and xylophones which come in and out of the arrangement. This section of the suite is called "Pusa Road," which is the second movement.
This section is very Zappa-esque, in that a complex melody is played in unison by a variety of instruments, particularly the combination of percussive and melodic instruments.
I was a bit apprehensive about putting the xylophone and the percussion in there because it is very "Frank," but then I just thought, I want to hear this!
In this sense, I think Fire Garden is more reflective of who you are, musically, than any of your previous albums.
That was a part of my intent. Writing music like this fills a certain void. It's hard to find music like this, and personally, I find it very satisfying to listen to. Having this type of music on the record could very well be to the detriment of any "pop icon-ness" I may have the potential to achieve, but you see, I have no choice -- I have to put this out there. If I made a record that was nothing but "hit"-type songs, without all of the "episodes" that I love to hear, I would feel really unfulfilled.
As an artist, you don't want to keep repeating yourself. But there are those fans who want you to stay the same as you were in the past. When the Beatles broke up, everybody felt like grabbing Lennon and McCartney: "C'mon, can't you guys just work together again, like the old days?"
Is there any truth to the rumor that you recently campaigned vigorously to be in Perry Farrell's band, Porno For Pyros?
In a Guitar World interview with Porno For Pyros' guitarist Peter DiStefano [GW, Aug. '96], DiStefano said that Perry showed him 10 personal letters that I sent to him, begging to be in the band. I would like to set the record straight, because I've been asked about this in too many interviews since then.
I met Perry Farrell in a parking lot once; we were both rehearsing at a place called Mates, in Los Angeles. I'd heard that he was working on a film, and I sent a message to him that I'd love to collaborate with him on a film score. The message I got back was that Perry's only comment was, "Steve Vai?! Wasn't he in Whitesnake?"
So, no, I never sent 10 personal letters -- now people can stop asking me about it.
What's your take on David Lee Roth rejoining Van Halen?
I've always been a fan of the early Van Halen stuff. Who isn't? I think it's great that Dave's back in the band. I hope they sell millions of records and go to heaven in a little rowboat! [laughs] I'll be one of the first people in line to get a ticket to see that show, if they take it on tour. They could sell out the Sahara Desert!
As someone who's known Dave for so long, were you shocked to see him and Eddie get back together?
Understand that in order to get along in a band, a certain chemistry is needed, and you push every button that a person has in their psychological makeup before you cross that threshold into "brotherhood." This is especially true of the relationship between a singer and a guitar player. So, I wasn't surprised that they broke up, and I'm not surprised that they're getting back together.
Whose the guitar super-tour with Eric Johnson and your old buddy, Joe Satriani?
Joe's. He's been trying to put something like this together for years.
When will the tour begin?
October third. We'll do between 20 and 25 shows. We're trying to be careful not to let it get so indulgent that it'll become fatiguing. Each of us will play about a 45-minute set, and there's a fabulous guitarist named Chris Duarte opening the show.
And the three headliners will be allowed to play only a certain number of notes within your respective sets, right?
Right! And we'll fine each other if we go over that number. I'll be broke after the first song!