Interview: Steve Vai Breaks Down His New Album, 'The Story of Light'
But the concept does provide a neat framework for the tracks. In speaking with Vai about The Story of Light, it’s a pleasure to discover the creative processes behind each piece, catching glimpses of his obsessive mind and fearless heart at work.
“I got the title first,” he says, “and I thought about it a lot. It often happens that things will start to come to you based on what’s on your mind. So the music all started to come about based on the title. And the first song, ‘The Story of Light,’ is just that for me. I mean, I can break it down and tell you what I was imagining and how I wanted to build the tracks, if you’re interested.”
We’re all ears, Mr. Vai.
"The Story of Light"
The album’s lead track began life as a vocal tune, essentially a soliloquy by the main character, Captain Drake Mason, laying out the album’s grand concept. But Vai jettisoned the vocal fairly early on, focusing intently on the music itself.
“I wanted to do some interesting rhythmic things,” he says. “If you listen carefully inside the ocean of guitars, there’s polymeters going on with the drums and percussion. But most of all I just wanted the song to wash over you with these big, fat, rich distorted chords on seven-string guitar. So I built these chords full of grandeur.”
It is indeed a majestic track in the best prog-rock traditions. Vai is particularly proud of the guitar medley at the end. “It’s the kind of melody I really enjoy,” he says. “Pure melody. It doesn’t repeat. I sat down and thought, Okay, you’re going to do something here and it’s not going to sound like the way you play normally. I created all these mental parameters: ‘It’s all gonna be phrases that you’ve never done before, and it’s all gonna be about articulation and touch.’ So what I did was break each phrase down and record it separately, really getting forensic with it. And when I strung all these segments together, I had a statement that was very different from what I would have gotten if I’d just jammed it out.
“And then I learned to play the complete melody from start to finish, which would have been impossible for me just to play at the beginning of the process. It’s stuff that I just couldn’t do. I had to work really hard on each phrase until the right thing happened. I can play much better than that, but that’s not what I was looking for. I was looking for something to happen that was special. And also, when you string all these things together and learn it, it changes the whole infrastructure of your musical vocabulary.”
But what about the lyric Vai had originally penned? Fragments of it are heard as a spoken recitation in Russian. (The English lyric is printed in the CD booklet.) But why Russian?
“I didn’t want Captain Drake Mason’s explanation in English,” Vai says, “ ’cause it sounded too sleazy or something. So I thought of a lot of different languages. Because I travel so much, I know the dynamic of various languages. Italian’s very romantic. Italian sounds like music. French has this exquisiteness to it, but it has a feminine nature, too. No offense to those masculine French guys! So I went through all of these languages in my head and one of them I almost went with was Norwegian; it’s a very angular language. But I really love Russian. It has these sharp edges but a flowing softness as well. I thought, This is the language I want to use for this vital lyric that goes with the whole concept of the story. So I worked with two different translators on the lyric.”
“John the Revelator”/“Book of the Seven Seals”
The Story of Light’s third and fourth tracks are based on Blind Willie Johnson’s late-Twenties gospel-blues classic “John the Revelator.”
Johnson’s work references the Biblical book of Revelation, attributed to St. John the Divine and containing a visionary prophecy of the Apocalypse, the end of days. Revelation has provided imagery for countless heavy metal tunes, among other creative works. Vai appropriates Blind Willie Johnson’s song to convey the experiences of a character with a strong Judeo-Christian background who gazes into the reflecting pool.
The story of how Vai discovered Blind Willie Johnson’s music is intriguing. He is friends with the groundbreaking singer/songwriter Tom Waits, who turned Vai onto folklorist Harry Smith’s seminal 1952 six-album Anthology of American Folk Music, which was reissued on CD in 1997. Johnson is one of the artists represented on the compilation.
“I got this anthology, and I was just enamored with it,” Vai recalls. “I still don’t go anywhere without all of it. And when I came across Blind Willie Johnson, forget it man. That was it. I got everything he ever recorded and studied it. I have books on him. I could tell you almost everything about him. There was just something brilliantly authentic about this guy and his voice. So when I heard ‘John the Revelator,’ I thought, Oh my God, I gotta do this. I was hearing these big guitars and all this intense activity. And I just forged ahead with this idea, which was kind of crazy.”