Steve Vai: Strings and Things
GW With music this ambitious, it must have been a tremendous amount of work to put it all together.
VAI We worked really hard. We did 30 days of rehearsal at about 12 to 15 hours a day. And one of the greatest things about this band—and one of the most important things to me—is that they are all really great people. When you go out on tour, it’s a piece of your life. And there are no secrets at sea; the road is where you really get to know people. If you go on tour with someone that you already know is an asshole, they will simply become an even bigger asshole. But if they are really wonderful, fun-loving, considerate people, they will bring those qualities to the road, which will make the experience really enjoyable and special.
I’ve been touring for 30 years now, and I’ve been in bands where the touring was not fun, and those periods represent some of the darker, less pleasant memories that I have. And I don’t want that. For instance, when I look back at my Real Illusions tour, I’m thrilled, because playing in that band, with those guys, was a great experience. It all comes out in the music, and it was the same with this band.
GW With music this challenging, is it difficult to find the right approach as the “demanding” bandleader? I would imagine your experiences with Frank Zappa were educational in that way.
VAI When I was a young man trying to figure out how to be an independent musician and how to further my skills, I was incredibly demanding of myself and I was very rough with myself. When practicing, I would say to myself, “If you think you are even going to get up and go eat or do anything, fuck you! You are going to sit here until you can play this perfectly, asshole!”
GW And your other self would never talk back, right?
VAI My other self would answer, “Okay, I’ll do it, I’ll do it!” I was very tough on myself, but I enjoyed that. I needed to have that commando mentality to get where I wanted to go.
When I first started to put my own bands together, I didn’t understand that you can’t be that way with other people. You are not going to get them to want to do their best and to enjoy the experience, and, in fact, now it’s you that’s the asshole. And I learned that pretty quickly.
When I was working with Frank, I realized that one of the reasons he was able to present a lot of the music that he did was because, as a musician working for him, you had so much respect for him that you wanted to do your best. You wanted to please him because of the love and the respect that you had for him. And that enabled you to do things on your instrument that you didn’t even know you could do.
That’s why people like me, and many of the other musicians that worked with Frank, are known for doing extraordinary things. Frank had two things: he had the ability—almost clairvoyance—to see what you can do better than you even knew you could do. And then, just because of the way he was, you wanted more than anything to get there. He would almost tease you to find yourself, and that would make you dig deep, simply because you wanted to. But if Frank were a bad kind of guy, you wouldn’t have been willing to work that hard. Through the years, this was something that I learned: respect is not something that you command; it’s something you can only earn.
GW Watching the new DVD, one can sense the great camaraderie in this band.
VAI In this band that I have now, there was a mutual respect among all of the musicians. That served to really bring the bar up way high, and it allowed people to reach some incredible heights. Those poor violin players! What they went through to get this stuff right is unbelievable. And then it has to go beyond that—it can’t just be right; it has to feel natural; it has to be a piece of music, and it has to be entertaining. Everyone in the band wanted that, and in the end, we all looked at each other and said, “Wow, man, this is really cool.”
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