Steve Vai Talks 'Passion and Warfare' and Its Sophisticated Antecedent, 'Modern Primitive'
It’s hard to explain the excitement and anticipation surrounding the release of Steve Vai’s second solo album, Passion and Warfare, when it was released in September 1990.
In an era known for outrageous guitar playing, the album promised to be the last word—a veritable Macy’s Fourth of July fireworks display of technique, tones and color.
One song was rumored to feature no less than 30 backward guitars, while another track, “For the Love of God,” was recorded after a reported four straight days of meditating, fasting and non-stop practicing.
“I was trying to push myself to the limit,” says Vai. “When it came time to record ‘For the Love of God,’ my fingers were totally gone. I had pictures of my fingers taken after that session, and they were bleeding under the skin.”
Produced and engineered by the guitarist himself, the album was the culmination of 20 years of study, experimentation, 12-hour marathon practice days and serious rock star image building. No mere compendium of “Steve’s latest riffs,” it was crafted to be the roadmap to the future of the guitar; a project so sprawling and ambitious, Vai had to develop a revolutionary seven-string guitar to capture all the notes rattling around in his skull.
Passion and Warfare was nothing less than the guitarist’s bid for immortality, and if it had the added benefit of leaving contemporaries like Edward Van Halen and Yngwie Malmsteen in the dust, so be it.
To really understand the genesis of the album, you have to travel back to 1980, when Vai was invited to join Frank Zappa’s band. Zappa, a guitarist and composer of complex, satirical music, had a reputation as a fearsome bandleader that demanded nothing less than perfection from musicians. While the gig did not make the 20-year-old a pop star—Zappa’s music was too bizarre and underground for that—Vai was immediately put on the short list of “musicians to watch” in the guitar community. To be so young and receive validation by someone as discerning and brilliant as Frank Zappa was no small thing, and people began to take notice as his street cred soared.
It was clear that big things were in store for the kid who could play anything Zappa could dish out, but it would take a few years. After leaving Frank’s band in 1983, Vai bought a house in Los Angeles where he built a modest recording studio in his backyard. There, he produced, engineered and recorded his first solo album Flex-Able, a compendium of warped instrumentals that were fabulously absurd and technically jaw-dropping.
The independent album sold surprisingly well, and Vai gained a reputation as the thinking man’s guitar hero. It was an impression further solidified by his band, The Classified, a progressive, Zappa-esque unit that appealed to a small group of hipsters in Los Angeles who had little use for the growing Eighties hair metal scene. The only downside was, it seemed like Vai was headed for nothing more than cult status, when suddenly he shifted gears.
In 1984, he replaced Yngwie Malmsteen in the hard rock unit Alcatrazz. After recording one fairly unremarkable album with the band, he left to join David Lee Roth’s high profile post–Van Halen band. Overnight the cult hero became one of the world’s most visible and celebrated lead guitarists, and his meteoric rise continued after he appeared in the 1986 blockbuster film Crossroads, where he played a pivotal role as the devil’s guitarist.
By 1990, Vai was a household name, and he wasn’t about to let the moment slip through his nimble fingers. Using his fame and his dazzling chops, he set out to make nothing less than the ultimate guitar album.
Upon the record’s release, Guitar World wrote: “Each track on Passion and Warfare features ravishing neo-psychedelic stereo panoramas reminiscent of Jimi Hendrix and even Sgt. Pepper’s–era Beatles. This recording is not about playing diminished scales at full throttle, or tapping with four fingers—it’s nothing less than the guitar as an orchestra. It’s also one of the damnedest things we’ve ever heard.”
All these years later, it still is.
When Vai announced he was commemorating the 25th anniversary of the album with a special newly remastered double CD edition of the album, it seemed only right to honor the occasion. But leave it to Steve to throw an interesting left curve. In addition to four previously unreleased tracks from the Passion and Warfare sessions, he has included the first ever release of Modern Primitive, a collection of songs based on song sketches and works-in-progress composed and recorded by Vai between the time of Flex-Able in 1984 and Passion and Warfare in 1990. It’s what Vai calls “the missing link between the two records.”
No throwaway, Modern Primitive features some of the most exciting music he has created since, well, Passion and Warfare. We caught up with Steve while he was driving, which was appropriate. As we chatted, the conversation veered into multiple directions before heading into parts unknown.
Can you tell me a little bit about who you were as a person at the time of the release of Passion and Warfare? What were your musical and commercial goals?
To really explain that, I’d have to go back five or six years before the release of the album. I recorded my first solo album Flex-Able in 1984, and it was a very innocent project. I released it independently and had very modest expectations in terms of sales or success. I really wasn’t thinking of a professional career or being famous. I had this incredible music teacher in high school and I always thought, Hey, if I ever just ended up teaching music at a high school, that would be great, but I loved the guitar and I loved making music. I loved the whole process of getting an idea and then fishing it out. One of my greatest strengths back then was not really having any expectations—I would just do things without putting too much thought about whether it would sell. My main focus was just on thrilling myself with the funny music I was making.
You were playing at the time with Frank Zappa. What was his influence?
I was enamored with Frank’s music, and that flowed into a lot of the stuff I was doing, because he seemed to have it all: the guitar playing, the comedy, the composition, all these things I really responded to. I was in my early twenties when I recorded Flex-Able, which is an interesting time in your life. You've got this almost revolutionary spirit and you really want to bang away at the things that are interesting to you. Since I had my own little studio—a shed that I converted in my backyard—I was really learning a lot about recording, engineering and how to work with people, skills that would become very important later when I recorded Passion and Warfare and my subsequent solo albums.
There’s a sizable six-year gap between Flex-Able and Passion and Warfare. What was happening to you and how did your attitude shift?
There was definitely evolution and growth. Once I left Frank, I put together a couple different bands, and just started playing all this crazy music. One of the groups was called the Classified, with Tommy Mars on keyboards and vocals, Stu Hamm on bass, Sue Mathis on keyboards and vocals and Chris Frazier on drums. I tracked probably about eight or 10 songs from that period and there were probably another dozen songs that weren’t recorded. I never did anything with any of the music and it just sat on a shelf, because I drifted off into other things, replacing Yngwie Malmsteen in Alcatrazz, and joining David Lee Roth’s band after he left Van Halen.
But I really liked what we created in the Classified, and over the years I was always looking for a suitable way to release it. When I decided to revisit Passion and Warfare, I saw it as an opportunity to present those “lost years,” as part of the package, which is what you hear on the accompanying disc, Modern Primitive.
Some of the material on Modern Primitive is quite strange, even by your standards. Progressive rock was very big in the 80's. I’m having a hard time figuring out where The Classified would’ve played.
We’d play small clubs in Hollywood like the Music Machine and Club Lingerie. The audiences weren’t huge, but between friends, family, Zappa fans or people that had responded to Flex-Able, we did well. Our music was definitely an acquired taste. However, you’re right, the whole hair metal phenomenon was starting to pick up steam, so we were outsiders.
Was that frustrating?
Not really, because we were having fun. The Classified didn’t have any commercial expectations. We knew that the music wasn’t very accessible, but when you are compelled to do something, the enthusiasm eclipses the desire to be famous. I just thought, Maybe a couple of people will hear it and like it and that’s good enough. That was my secret weapon, really.
Playing with Zappa probably gave you confidence to pursue your vision, no matter how skewed it was.
That’s correct. I was very fortunate. I had this massive machine that was just chugging away in back of me, consisting of everything from the reputation of being a Zappa musician, to having a left-field hit with “The Attitude Song” from Flex-Able, not to mention making the appearance in the hit movie Crossroads. All these things came together to create a weird kind of mystique. Then, when I joined David Lee Roth’s band, I suddenly became a part of the mainstream.