Interview: Steve Vai and Tosin Abasi
The two guitarists discuss what it takes to be a virtuoso.
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.
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