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