Steve Vai: Strings and Things
GW One of the great things about Where the Wild Things Are is that it offers some new twists on the presentation of your music.
VAI My thought process was: What can I possibly do that’s going to be unique from what I’ve done before, or even better, something that’s unique in and of itself? I had these various concepts for band instrumentation, but primarily I knew there would be a rock band at the core. One idea was to have two percussionists with huge rigs, working with the rock band. I can hear it in my head, and I know that would sound really cool. Another idea was to augment the rock band with a 12-piece horn section.
GW Would you say that working with the orchestra inspired some of these concepts for expanded instrumentation?
VAI Yes, definitely. Another idea was to bring in a violinist, which seemed to be the most natural and appropriate thing, as I was coming from the orchestral project. Once I decided on the violin, the problem was finding the right player. I sent out an audition piece that was from the Metropole project, a very challenging piece, not because it’s fast, per se, but because the phrasing is very precise and there are nuances that need to be performed perfectly.
Unfortunately, it seemed that just about everyone I was auditioning was a metal/shred violinist, and it just wasn’t working. And the classical players, the ones that had no trouble reading the music—once I turned up my guitar, their violin bows melted and they ran for the hills! Although I teach the music to the players in various ways, a lot of it was written out.
GW Some of the music on Where the Wild Things Are must look pretty intense on paper.
VAI Well, if you held page one of the song “Now We Run,” you could walk about 10 feet before getting to the end of the chart. That one tune is 78 pages of sheer terror. I needed to find someone that could read it and understand it but also play it with the aggression it needs.
Then this guy Alex DePue came into the picture, and he totally blew me away. He had great control, unbelievable virtuosity and intonation, and though he wasn’t from a rock background—he’s classically trained—he wasn’t a “classical head” either.
I thought, This is so great; I’ve got my player. Then I started to get these messages from a girl in the Midwest, saying, “I play violin and I want to rock out with you, Steve!” Though I felt I had already found my person, I saw pictures of her and I thought, This woman is really beautiful—no one that beautiful could play this crazy music! But boy was I wrong. Her name is Ann Marie Calhoun, and she sent me a customized video of her playing, and I was knocked out. She played the audition piece flawlessly, her intonation was breathtaking, her finesse and her confidence was astounding. That’s when it clicked: I want both of them in the band.
GW Much of the material on Where the Wild Things Are originally appeared on other records. Did you look at this project as an opportunity to rearrange the songs for the new instrumentation?
VAI I looked at this project as the chance to go into the catalog and pull songs that I had never played live and arrange them for this sound that I knew was going to work. Now, with two violins and two guitars—myself and Dave Weiner—I had four “melody” instruments to work with. If I had four guitars, it would be a mess. I’ve done that many times, and you can make it work, but unless you have four Brian Mays, it’s usually a mess. The violin has such a great texture to it; it really has an organic, beautiful, rich kind of harmonic structure. With two guitars and two violins, the frequency real estate is dished out appropriately, because all of the melody instruments are not taking up the same aural space. This allows the four-part harmonies to sound really beautiful.
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