Interview: Steve Vai and Tosin Abasi
Tosin Abasi strides into a Hollywood photo studio dressed in a crisp striped jersey, jeans and a pair of horn-rimmed glasses that make him look a bit like the young Dizzy Gillespie.
He’s toting a pair of the Ibanez eight-string guitars that have become his stock in trade, sleek-bodied instruments with broad, massive necks that carry the heft and menace of weaponry.
And indeed Abasi uses these guitars to devastating effect on the two albums he’s recorded as the mastermind of Animals as Leaders, post-thrash, prog-metal exponents of a brawny, blindingly virtuosic style of instrumental guitar rock called djent. The genre name is an onomatopoetic nod to the sound of a palm-muted downstroke on ultralow, hyperdistorted guitar strings. And nobody lays that sound down quite like Abasi.
The young guitarist is soft spoken, possessed of an understated cool, a sharp sense of style and a winning smile. And as Tosin gets into makeup for the day’s Guitar World cover photo shoot, discretely ditching his horn-rimmed cheaters, Steve Vai appears on the scene. He too is packing a pair of axes: two fine examples of the distinctive JEM guitar that Vai designed for Ibanez way back in the Eighties. One of these is the legendary Evo, the white JEM that has figured prominently on countless Vai recordings and live performances down through the years.
The instrument looks well used, its finish faded and worn away along the sides and sections of the top. The nicks and gashes speak of the long journey Vai has traveled from his initial late-Seventies debut as Frank Zappa’s “stunt guitarist” and “little Italian wonder boy” to his present-day stature as one of the most distinctive, innovative and insightful guitarists of the rock era.
Abasi and Vai embrace. It’s a torch-passing moment, a meeting of two generations, personified by two guitarists who perhaps best embody the highest musical aspirations of their peers and those who will come after. As a leading light of the Eighties shred phenomenon, Vai raised the bar for rock guitar playing, setting the stage for the prog-metal and djent scenes of more recent years. Vai’s pioneering application of the seven-string guitar to rock virtuosity is a clear precursor to the eight-string mayhem of Animals as Leaders and djent-head cohorts like Periphery, Veil of Maya and Textures.
The line of influence is clear, although not always readily apparent to the ear. Relentlessly frenetic and mercilessly overbearing in its harmonic and rhythmic intensity, the music of Animals as Leaders is the perfect soundtrack for our present era of information overload, socio-economic meltdown and cyber anguish. But within this maelstrom, Abasi manages to make his own unique and eloquent statement. For all his stylistic indebtedness to recent metal styles, there are also elements of free-jazz adventurousness in his work, not to mention a sly kinship with electronic genres like drum and bass and dubstep, which share a fondness for ramped-up, wildly skewed rhythms and insanely precise eruptions of terse staccato notes.
In contrast to all this urgent now-ness, Steve Vai has entered what might be termed a phase of mature classicism, at the apex of a career which has spanned everything from hair metal to world music to symphonic composition. His new album, Real Illusions: The Story of Light, is awash in both melodic grandeur and steamy rock riffology, all steeped in a mystical conceptual overlay in the best tradition of classic prog masterworks like Yes’ Tales from Topographic Oceans. Vai’s command of the fretboard is so thorough and effortless and his melodic sense so finely honed that passages of astounding virtuosity can slip by almost unnoticed—until you pick up a guitar and try to reduplicate even a few bars yourself.
Still, Vai and Abasi are brothers in arms, an elder statesman and a young relatively new hopeful. Although the two have met before, this is the first time they’ve had the opportunity to sit down and really talk over what they care about most: music and guitars. Their conversation is much like their music, inspired, passionate and full of surprises.
GUITAR WORLD: Perhaps we can compare notes on how and when each of you discovered the other’s music.
STEVE VAI: My kids listen to all sorts of music. And I believe I first heard Animals as Leaders coming out my son’s room. I said, “Whoa, what’s going on there?” I got the record, and the first thing I thought was, This is a new trend in band names. And I really liked it because it was so unconventional—Animals as Leaders. ’Cause there are bands now with names like iwrestledabearonce.
TOSIN ABASI: We played with them. They’re crazy.
VAI: But it wasn’t just the name Animals as Leaders that I loved. As a musician, I look for certain things that stimulate me. And what I look for is something that’s an evolution on a particular genre that I never heard before. And that’s what I heard when I listened to Tosin’s record. I have a musical mind from all my years with Frank Zappa and stuff. And when I listened to Animals as Leaders, the analytical side of me was really intrigued.
The harmonic structure was very unique, and the rhythmic structure too. But there was something even more there that I connected with on an emotional level. I know as a guitar player that anybody who practices real hard can become a really fast player, so I’m not really impressed by fast players unless they’re doing something really beautiful. And I just heard it all in Tosin’s music. He was playing melodically beautiful harmonic tapestries that were making me feel a rhythmic juxtaposition that I really enjoy. Sure, it was rooted in that subculture, Meshuggah polymetric stuff that locks together. But a lot of that stuff doesn’t work for my ears. In Tosin’s case, though, all the elements came together.
VAI: Congratulations, and thank you.
ABASI: Thank you. A lot of what you described as far as what you look for in music and what pushes your buttons is totally what drove me to try to create that sound. And as far as evolution, I know what you mean. You don’t want to do what everybody else is doing. And I think those artists who inspire a lot of people to copy them were not copying anyone. There are always these individuals who make quantum leaps. They have this impact and everyone wants to catch up…until someone makes another jump. So I’ve always listened to players who I think were fierce individuals and really concerned with their own trajectory. That was my food. And it’s crazy to be able to pull off a kind of music that you’ve had in your head for a long time.
VAI: It’s nice. And like you say, I think that’s the driving factor. I don’t know if you ever felt this way, but you almost feel like you don’t have anything to lose.
ABASI: Yeah, especially in the beginning.
VAI: Especially in the beginning, yes. When I first came out, I was with all these big rock bands [Whitesnake, David Lee Roth] and I enjoyed it, but it was crushing me musically, ’cause I had something in my head that I wanted to do. And when I quit all those rock bands, I basically felt, “Okay, it’s all gone. What have you got to lose?” And that’s usually what it takes for you to look into yourself and find what it is you really want to express.
ABASI: I first got into guitar during the whole alternative music craze [of the Nineties], so I was just doing barre chords. I could play every song I knew just by moving a barre chord around. But my older brother started getting into more serious players, and that’s how I discovered instrumental guitar rock. And Vai and Joe Satriani were just already all over anything that I was into. If I got an issue of Guitar World, I was just like, What is this stuff? So I bought Passion and Warfare on a cassette tape. There were moments when I wasn’t sure if I was listening to a synth or a guitar—just these striking musical moments in it. It really changed my idea of what you could do with a guitar. From then on, I started practicing way more and learning more about these players. That began me on this journey to whatever it is I sound like now.
Did you get into seven-string guitar partially because of Steve’s influence?
ABASI: Well, it was more from heavier bands doing stuff with a seven-string guitar. I’ve always had this metal side. I think a lot of advanced guitar players end up in this metal genre, ’cause it allows them to play fast. Their ideas of taste are a bit crazy. But the first guitar that I ever worked really hard for and spent a lot of money on was the Ibanez UV-777. [The seven-string Universe guitar that Vai designed with Ibanez.]
VAI: Right on!
ABASI: That was the seven-string. I’m trying to think of tracks where you played the seven that really inspired me. For me, it was more just your playing in general.
VAI: I didn’t really use the seven-string as much as a lot of people thought I did. I designed that guitar for the Whitesnake record [Slip of the Tongue], ’cause I wanted to have a sound that could do different things. And then a part of it spilled over onto Passion and Warfare, but not a lot really. When I did the Whitesnake tour, however, I played the seven-string exclusively.
VAI: Yeah. But when I was doing it, I had a feeling that there was going to be a group of kids who were really gonna take that low string and do something with it that I wasn’t doing. And I also felt that maybe some jazz and classical players would take it up. I had no idea that they were going to do what they did. I remember I was driving down the street once and I heard this music on the radio. I actually had to pull the car over and listen, ’cause I couldn’t believe it. It was Korn. And I’m like, “They’re doing more than I did with the seven-string.” They took it to another level. It was so, so cool to see it happen. See, my own influence on the seven-string guitar kind of came and went. But when it came, there were enough young players who were inspired to play a seven-string guitar and who became popular. They really blew it up. And that’s the seven-string you heard. ’Cause I used it more as a texture.
ABASI: Yeah, with “Bad Horsie.”
VAI: No, that wasn’t a seven-string. “Bad Horsie” was just tuning down.
ABASI: Okay. Sorry about that! But it’s really cool that you had an idea and implemented it, and then it became the catalyst of this whole other thing.
VAI: Well, now they’ve got eight strings. You’re playing an eight-string guitar.
Yeah, how did you progress from seven to eight?
ABASI: In getting comfortable on the seven, I enjoyed a real creative boost from having that extra string. I was writing new riffs and there were different interval combinations available to me. So I guess I was looking for that same experience again. And the idea to move on to eight strings came from Meshuggah, who were playing Universes for a while, and then I guess they wanted to go further, so they commissioned a luthier to make them these eight-string guitars. Hearing that, for me, was kind of like what you were describing with Korn, Steve. You know it’s a guitar, but…
VAI: I don’t think they even have a bass player anymore.
ABASI: They do, but it’s hard for him to find a place in the music. He just does unison notes sometimes. So as a guitar player, you hear this thing and it’s like, Okay, I know that’s a guitar, but why does it sound like that? What’s happening with it? I was actually in music school at the time I got into eight-string. I did a one-year program at the Atlanta Institute of Music. Because I was learning about the fretboard as well, the idea of eight-string seemed less daunting. Long story short, I found a guitar builder—Jesse Hall, the illustrious luthier—and asked him if he wanted to do an eight-string. He said yeah, and it inspired some music. That guitar had a kind of elongated body. The top bout goes all the way up to the 12th fret or so. The body was the size of a bass guitar and the neck was 30 inches long. But all the eight-string material on the first Animals as Leaders album was written and performed on that guitar. So instantly, I started writing music with this new string. I’m still inspired by the amount of range on it.
To ask the devil’s advocate question, why ain’t six strings enough?
ABASI: It’s a weird question. If you had a five-string guitar, you would produce music on that.
VAI: Six is enough, and eight is enough too. Whatever you want. Four can be enough. One can be enough, if you’ve got the imagination for it. But I do agree with Tosin. I’ve played eight-string guitars and, when you get down to it, there’s a lot more options. There are chord voicings that you just cannot play on a six-string guitar. I’m using the seven-string on my new record. I’ve got these big, fat, seven-string voicings with tons of distortion, and when you can get them to speak right, it’s something you just can’t get out of a six-string.
With an eight-string, you’ve got an octave and a fifth below a standard guitar, or an octave and a fourth.
ABASI: Yeah, I do. And it’s exactly what Steve is describing. It’s these rich, complex chords. They don’t necessarily have to be harmonically complex, but that amount of strings ringing out at the same time is really something.
VAI: A guitar just twangs. It’s the resonance.
ABASI: But is the eight-string really a guitar? In a weird way, I was less concerned with playing the guitar than with just playing a stringed instrument. The six-string guitar can be characterized as a midrange instrument. But for me, the eight-string and its almost alien quality started to produce new musical ideas because it was un-guitarlike in a lot of ways. I like that, because of this idea of evolution and pushing things forward. Sometimes your tools can be responsible for that.
Your approach is almost pianistic at times, with the left hand tapping out chords on the lower strings while the right plays melodies on the higher strings.
ABASI: Yes, which is easy on an eight-string. Whereas, trying to do the same thing on a six, you only have three strings on each side to work with. But with eight-string, I can tap on two strings and have almost a whole six-string guitar for other stuff.
VAI: It’s more real estate.
ABASI: And range. We’re talking about frequency. I looked at other instruments outside the guitar, like a piano. It’s got quite a range. And if you ever mess around with a bass, sometimes that degree of low end is really gratifying. So to me, the eight-string guitar is a cool integration of all of that into a single instrument.
I wonder if you guys have any influences in common. You came up at different times, but I wonder if you could agree on a short list of ultimate guitarists.
VAI: I was a teenager in the Seventies, so my juice was bands like Led Zeppelin, Queen, Deep Purple, Jethro Tull and all that progressive rock stuff. And there was a period when I studied various genres. Like, I was really into Joe Pass, Danny Gatton, Carlos Santana… But then there were other influences. Probably the music I listen to the most now is Tom Waits, which has nothing to do with anything I do. But I’m just very compelled by people who are connected with the core of creativity. That simple, clear connection which brings forth all of this unique talent. And he’s just really in touch with that, to me. But that’s me. I mean, I’m 52. You’re like…what?
ABASI: I’m 29. So there is definitely a generation difference in terms of what was popular when we were at an impressionable age. But then there’s music that carries over through generations.
VAI: What did you listen to, though?
ABASI: It started off, literally, with Nirvana, Smashing Pumpkins… I have a deficiency in being versed in classic stuff. I’ll have these experiences where I’ll hear a Yes song for the first time and be like, “Holy crap, I thought Dream Theater made this up. These guys were doing it 30 and 40 years ago!”
VAI: But in a way that’s part of the evolution of music too. Like, I wasn’t listening to guys from the Sixties all that much.
ABASI: You listened to current music of your own time.
VAI: Yeah, which was in the Seventies.
ABASI: There’s value in the past. Some of my favorite players are ones who are influenced by someone who, technically, I should have listened to. You know what I mean? I might like a contemporary guitarist who is into some of the icons. But I like his stuff more than the icons, because it’s an evolution off of those major, essential influences.
VAI: Well, I never sat there and thought, I’m going to take the guitar beyond what anyone’s done with it before. I always thought I was the worst! And frankly, I think one of the reasons why I can do the things I can do is because I never thought I was good enough. I always felt like I could do better and better and better.
You were tough on yourself.
VAI: Yeah, tough. Because it was fun, though. When I was young, I wasn’t a misfit or anything. I had friends in all the different social groups. But I had issues—just personal issues, insecurities and other things that had happened in my life. And when I got hold of the guitar, the thing that really lit me up about the instrument is you try to do something and you can’t, but then you work on it and all of a sudden you can. It’s like this little bell that goes off and you say, “Holy shit, I can do anything! All I gotta do is sit here and work on it.”
ABASI: Yes! Yes!
VAI: And that was it. All of a sudden, these things started happening, and there’s no end to it.
ABASI: I’m getting chills, ’cause I had the exact same experiences.
VAI: Of course, that’s how it works. You become fascinated. People ask, “Why did you practice 10 and 15 hours a day?” I don’t necessarily think that’s normal or even healthy. But it was an escape from other things in my life. And when you can’t do something but you work at it and then you can do it, you get this sense of achievement, which is something we all really thrive on, and also a sense of dignity that might have been destroyed by something else. So that in itself creates this feedback effect, this addiction. It was a beautiful thing for me. And when the Zappa gig came along and he was like, “Can you play this?” I was like, “Of course I can play it.” ’Cause all you gotta do is work on it. Slowly, slowly, note by note. It was unfathomable to me that any guitar player couldn’t do it. And I realized why. They just didn’t have the chutzpah to sit there and work on it. And it doesn’t necessarily make you great. I don’t really think that greatness is a product of discipline. Greatness is an inspiration that a person has. So we can tell people how to be a virtuoso guitar player: just sit and practice really slow and perfectly and make sure you have vibrato and your intonation is perfect and then get faster and faster and just don’t do anything that you can’t play. Every week click the notch up a bit. And you’ll be able to play anything. But that won’t make you a great musician.
Do you practice like that, Tosin? Fifteen hours a day?
ABASI: Yes, for the same reason Steve describes, which is really crazy. What happens is there’s this revelation that if you put in work on something you can’t do at first, eventually you can do it. And the first time that happens it is kind of like an addiction. You want it to happen again. And the more it happens, the more you’re confident that it can happen. So you start chasing your potential. You realize, Yeah, eventually I might get as good as I try to get. It feeds itself. So it’s not like you’re locked in a room practicing under obligation. You’re concerned with your potential. You’re like, I’m full of potential and I’ve already started to unlock it. And I could spend the rest of my life doing it.
VAI: Getting better on the guitar is really just a reflection of your ability to chisel out your own doubt. Criticism can be devastating. When push comes to shove, we are all very sensitive. I know I can be. Artists have this burning desire to create something that will gratify other people—when you find the right audience. No matter what anybody tells you, we want to be appreciated; we want to feel like what we’re doing has value and that we’re making a contribution. But what we have to get through our heads is it’s not for everybody, but it is for a select group. And when you follow your muse and your creative impulse sincerely, you find that the audience comes. They come. That’s one reason why I listen to your music and I follow you.
ABASI: There’s this whole faith that there’s someone somewhere liking your music—a faith that there is a community of listeners who are going to have their buttons pushed by what you’re doing, and they will step forward and facilitate your continuing to create. And it’s true. The Animals as Leaders album was recorded in a condo with a friend of mine. No amps or mics. We plugged straight into a computer and we did this thing after work for a few weeks. All I know is that I was very freely trying to get this sound out. You know what I mean? And I find it amazing that you’re bringing up qualities in it that are exactly what I wanted people to hear and exactly what I was feeling when I was doing it. It’s freaky.
What do either of you think of the term djent as a stylistic designation? Is it valid?
ABASI: Have you heard this term?
VAI: No, except like a gentleman or something.
ABASI: It’s djent.
VAI Don’t know it. But then I have a harp player in my band who said, “Who’s Van Halen?” She didn’t even know Van Halen. I said, “Did you ever hear of Led Zeppelin.” She said, “I think I heard some of his music.” [laughs] I mean the phrase sounds familiar, but I don’t know what it is.
ABASI: Djent is supposed to be what I’m doing. You’ve described it already. You’re hearing this sort of polymetric thing, a lot of palm muting and there might be ethereal clean tones over it. It’s essentially what they’re calling what this new wave of bands are doing; what I’m doing. Because you know what djent is? It’s like a chug on the low strings, like djent, djent, djent. It just has more treble.
VAI: Oh, of course, yeah, I did hear that. But I never connected it.
ABASI: Meshuggah’s the originator of djent. But what do I think of the term? I think people need to call things stuff.
They called Steve shred.
ABASI: Anything that happens in music, if it happens with more than one individual and if it’s strong enough, people will want to call it something. And it’s always going to be something that you probably don’t like too much. Or it’s minimizing.
VAI: What’s surprising to me is they call me shred and they’re guys doing djent who are shredding much more than I am.
ABASI: But you know, none of that could have happened if you didn’t do what you did when you did it. Whether or not you’re shredding or even concerned with shredding, there’s an association with this thing that you brought to guitar.
VAI: No, I get that. And I’m grateful.
ABASI: It’s obvious. Djent is a silly word, I guess. It might be useful to communicate, just so someone knows what you’re talking about. “Oh, they’re a djent band? Okay, cool.”
VAI: It’s like saying dubstep or trip-hop. It locates. A lot of that I like, because I just love the sound of heavy guitars going chugga, chugga, chugga. It just moves my soul. I love it. The chuggier, the djentier, the better. So, you know, a djent by any other name....