Steve Vai Discusses Recording 'Skyscraper,' His New Album with David Lee Roth in 1988 Guitar World Interview
He avoids drugs like the plague, in part because they blur that intelligent distance. And if he wields his ax like a rampaging chainsaw killer, he's never committed random violence with it; he's always somehow found something striking and coherent to say in that idiosyncratic way that eludes any would-be imitators.
That idiosyncratic approach is the result of the path he's made for his life in music. Unlike a lot of young musicians, Vai has created and seized opportunities to present himself and what he does in a wide variety of contexts.
Partly, that open-ended sense of determination is driven by a Zen-like belief in the rightness of fate that to some extent parallels the notion of karma. So that, for example, when I said to him at our first meeting, "So far your career has been a mosaic of different musical styles," he could laugh, "Well, at least it's artistic," but he could also stand back and respond in depth.
Like this: "It 's hard to remember what my consciousness was like when I was 19, 20, 21, y'know? Back then, I didn't feel like I was really at my potential, but that I was discovering my potential. So every event that took place in my life back then, and even before then, and even now, is all perfect. I believe that to be true for everybody. A lot of times people who might have wanted to be musicians might sit when they're 30 or 35 and look back and try to think what it might have been like.
“But I believe that every single thing that has happened to me has been perfect in its own right, that every single thing has led to something even if it looked at the time like I was declining or losing status or whatever, it was still perfect. You know, fate seems to know no success in the material form -- I don't know if that makes any sense. But what I mean by that is that I believe your personal development is a reflection of all the situations in your life. And if success in the realm of the arts is the important thing for you to experience, then it will be.
"But I don't look at anybody who isn't famous as being less than anybody who is; as a matter of fact, I don't hang around with famous people because, well, either because I'm shy or because some people take their fame in a way that I don't want to be exposed to.
“Don't get me wrong -- I bask in my good fortune. But if I weren't famous, I'd still be basking in the things that I enjoy. And anyway, when you look at it I'm not really famous; I may be in the music business, but when you think about what fame and history really mean, that's something different. I believe that there are musicians right now who are 'famous' who won't survive history, but I also believe there are people alive right now who will be historical figures, whether they're famous now or not."
That longer view of how musical history works gives Vai perspective; no past experience, no present or future potential looms so large that it obscures the arc of the whole -- kinda like his solos, come to think of it.
As he says, "But getting back to how this relates to my looking at how I was with Frank Zappa [laughs], all I can say is that with Frank I was learning so many things that I look at that as my early days. Same with Alcatrazz: it was early days, and I was learning. And now with Dave ... Well, probably when I'm 40 I'll be looking at everything as my early days, y'know [laughs]? But I've found that whatever happens in my life, even if it goes wrong, it's still perfect."
Perfect perhaps, but definitely variable. Basically, there are two broad marketing categories that Vai's work up to now falls into. First, and most lucrative, is the stuff like Alcatrazz and Crossroads and David Lee Roth, which attracts at least a fair amount of public attention. Second is the more experimental, walking-the-edge feel that threads through his solo stuff and his more outside work with Public Image Ltd and L. Shankar. Reconciling those two different aspects of his musical personality has led Vai to do some thinking.