Steve Vai Discusses the Struggle to Balance Precision and Passion in 1991 Guitar World Interview
Steve Vai discusses West Side Story, his dedication to the guitar and the sorry state of Top 40 radio in this interview from the April 1991 issue of Guitar World.
What is the idea behind the Passion And Warfare jacket art?
For me it was a representation of the two sides we all need to draw from in order to achieve balance.
You've had an incredible year. What are some of your personal highlights?
Doing the record and being satisfied with the end result was a personal highlight. The fact that it was accepted by so many people was also a pleasure and an honor. Also, winning all these polls is something that is very dear to me. I have to keep remembering that people are showing their respect for my talent. It's not like you're Number One -- that's pretty impossible. If you start believing that you are Number One, I think it becomes anti-productive on many different levels.
I've also reached a new calm this year. I think it's primarily because I did a solo project that was uncompromising, and it was still accepted. It's the first time since high school that I felt musically free. I've always been in bands, and in any band you usually have to compromise.
Speaking of bands, are you going to continue working with Whitesnake?
Basically, everybody is doing their own thing. David Coverdale lives down the street from me, and I wouldn't mind writing with him. But I don't really have any comment on the band 's future.
I know that you really admire band units like Led Zeppelin and the Jimi Hendrix Experience. Is it frustrating that the perfect band unit has eluded you?
I really love the sense of family that you get from a tight band unit. Sometimes I regret the fact that I wasn't in one band all along. But it would have to be such a diverse and special band. Maybe I didn't have the incentive to find those types of people when I was younger.
I thought the David Lee Roth unit could've been special. It just slowly deteriorated. I had a great rock group in high school named Rage, and it was probably my greatest band experience. It was such a pleasure! We were young, we had no inhibitions. It was like a family. Rage was something we would fight for. We'd do whatever it would take to make the band great. We'd steal lights off of people's lawns to make a light show, carve up bottle rockets in order to make flash pots. Sometimes I wonder what it would 've been like to have just stuck with that band.
I really admire Motley Crue. The Crue have been around. Their record has just sold over four million copies, and that's because they are brothers. People sense that.
What's the greatest obstacle to assembling a great band?
Finding a great lead singer. Someone who's talented and has a big ego. I wouldn't want to be the biggest thing on stage. But because I've worked with the best, it makes it more difficult to find someone. Nobody sings better than David Coverdale, and nobody entertains better than David Lee Roth. Those are tough shoes to fill, but I can't settle for anything less.
With the success of Passion, you can pretty much do anything you want. Is having that much freedom of choice difficult?
Absolutely, positively, unequivocally no. I think people are attracted to music, situations and individuals that display their freedom. That's why great political and spiritual leaders have followers. They're not seeking followers, they're just expressing themselves in a true and pure form, and it 's inspirational.
Why did someone like Boy George become so big? Basically, he just said, "To hell with everybody. I want to wear makeup, do whatever I do, and people can think whatever they want to think." That 's freedom and people relate to it. Whether they go for his bisexuality or not is besides the point.
Is there any new talent you find interesting?
Dweezil Zappa is doing some great things. I think he is highly underrated.
Are there any music trends you find disturbing?
I try to keep a positive attitude about everything, but Top 40, CHR radio tends to make me sick. A lot of it is so contrived and counter-evolutionary. I just went out on an interview tour, and the deejays are really frustrated. They have all these great things they want to play, but can't because radio is so tightly formatted. It's a shame, because they're the real music lovers. They could really make radio interesting again, but their hands are tied.
Is there anything other than the typical rock influences that helped shape your aesthetic vision?
West Side Story was a big one. The gang violence and rebellion intrigued me when I was young. Also, the late Leonard Bernstein's score had everything -- incredible arrangements, high energy and great melodies. The songs were really shocking. [Sings] "We are the Jets and we're going to beat every last fucking gang on the whole fucking street . On the whole fucking, ever-loving street!" When I was a kid it was like, "Wow, do you hear what they're saying?" And it was all set to this great music and choreography.
The Jets' theme said it all, musically. It was very defiant, and Bernstein loved writing in Lydian, which is my favorite mode. Guys like Bernstein and [composer] Stephen Sondheim are brilliant. Have you ever heard Sondheim's score to Sweeny Todd? Oh, man!
Somehow, it 's not surprising that you connected to West Side Story -- you've made a career out of a form of choreographed juvenile delinquency.
Thank you [laughs].
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