Steve Vai Explains the Generation Axe Approach and What It's Like to Be Pushed by His Peers

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(Image: © Larry DiMarzio)

“I’m well aware of people’s perception of me,” Steve Vai says. “They think I’m this super-serious guy all the time. I’m locked away composing all this crazy music, and I have no fun. And that’s just not true at all.” He catches himself for a second, then laughs. “Well, let me clarify that. I am that guy — I’m serious about what I do, and I spend lots of time writing music. But believe me, I love to have fun, except I do it a little differently than most people.”

Not surprisingly, Vai’s idea of a good time involves playing the guitar, and since 2016 he’s gathered a group of fellow axe wizards (Zakk Wylde, Nuno Bettencourt, Yngwie Malmsteen and Tosin Abasi) to form what he calls a “supergroup” that performs under the banner Generation Axe. But unlike other mega-guitar touring revues, such as Robert Fripp’s League of Crafty Guitarists and Joe Satriani’s G3 (the latter of which has featured Vai), the idea behind Generation Axe was based around the concept of collaboration and free-form expression — a more “anything goes” ethos.

“G3 is fantastic and I love it,” Vai says, “but I wanted to take the multiple-guitarist concept and bend it a new way. Instead of each guy doing a set with his own band, with Generation Axe we have each guy doing a few songs with the same band, but then they co-create with somebody else. There’s no breaks, and throughout the show various people come in and out and play these beautiful, harmonized guitar parts.”

Reminded of the fact that Generation Axe and G3 share one key element, the end-of-the-show all-hands-on-deck gonzo guitar jam, Vai laughs and says, “Oh, yeah, we definitely do the jam. That’s always the big send-off. But before then, it’s a different kind of animal. It’s an amalgamation of collaboration and individuality, and I love that. It’s a hell of a lot of fun.”

Generation Axe’s 2016 debut consisted of a month-long series of shows in the U.S., and a year later the same group reconvened for an 11-date swing through China, Japan, Indonesia and Malaysia. This November, Vai and his six- and seven-string cohorts will set out on their most extensive tour yet, 32 concerts throughout the States. Getting the old gang back together was no easy task, and Vai confirms that he began plotting the trek a year ago. “Everybody’s so busy and doing so many things, so I had to wait until all the schedules lined up,” he says. “This was the only window in which it could happen. I’m literally boxed in — I’m coming from an orchestra show in Alabama into two days of rehearsals. After that, we’re off on the road, and I can’t wait.”

Nuno Bettencourt

Nuno Bettencourt

(Image: © Phey Palma)

When you first put together your master list of players for Generation Axe, what kind of characteristics were you looking for in each guitarist?

First and foremost, I wanted people who had their own voice on the instrument. Nobody on this tour sounds like the other guy. There’s no way Zakk sounds like Tosin, or Tosin sounds like Nuno, and so on. The other thing was, would they get along and work together? I came up with the names and was like, “OK, I don’t know if this is gonna fly…” Because the people involved are all pretty intense; they have strong personalities. Fortunately, everybody got along great. You know, these guys are professionals. They’ve been through it all — the drama, the sex, the drugs… well, in most cases. [Laughs] But they all wanted to do this for the right reasons. And let me tell you, they’re funny guys, too. Zakk is hilarious, and Yngwie, too — he’s never-ending entertainment. Interesting, intelligent, wild, opinionated…

When we were in Taiwan, Zakk and I were having breakfast at this hotel restaurant, and we were saying how the tour was this little oasis for us. The music’s fun. We get to play with each other in a way that’s sort of unique. We get to have a blast on the bus and hang out. For me, it really is a welcome respite from the rigors of having to run my own show. I don’t have to be the guy making all the decisions, even though I am, I guess, “running it.”

Everybody on the tour comes from the hard rock, metal or prog world. Did you think to go outside those boxes? A blues player, say? Or maybe a country player?

Well, there’s various ways to approach it. At first I thought, “Let’s stay genre-specific.” So I wrote these genres down — metal, rock, blues and fusion. They were genres I thought we could kind of get away with, including myself, whatever genre you want to call me. My metal isn’t as authentic as Zakk or Yngwie, and my prog isn’t as authentic as Tosin. I’m just that weird, quirky player who fits in somewhere. If anybody in this lineup is possibly a little left of center, it’s probably me. Maybe one day I’ll spread the tour out into some other areas. We’ll see.

Would you think about adding a female guitarist? Nita Strauss, perhaps?

Absolutely. I think someone like Nita could be pretty effective in a situation like this. I’m always interested in females who can really play and who have the authenticity and the sincerity in what they’re doing. That’s important for even a tour like this. That’s what I look for in the kinds of players — their authenticity.

Tosin Abasi

Tosin Abasi

(Image: © Phey Palma)

Although you describe it as “free form,” you do construct the show. What goes into that planning?

I love building the pace of a show, and I’m pretty good at it. If you listen to my records or see one of my own shows, you know that there’s an ebb and flow to what I do. So with Generation Axe, I asked myself, “If I were sitting in the audience, what would I want to see?” I worked with Nuno on this, because he’s very intuitive to the same thing.

Starting with Tosin felt good, because his music is very artistic and complex, but it has a real bang to it. And then Nuno comes out and joins him. Nuno does his own things beautifully, and he can sing, of course, but he also has the ability to play a Tosin song, which all of us can’t do. Then you put Zakk and Nuno together, and that’s just perfect: They sing and play great. With Zakk, you’ve got to be prepared to get clobbered with these intense bullet notes. You can bask in the glory of all of that “meshugga,” so to speak. Craziness.

Yngwie felt like a great evolution from Zakk, to keep the energy and the metal going. Yngwie’s presentation is just overwhelming. He shoots two cans of Red Bull before he hits the stage, and then he tears your head off. Then I would come out and do a song with him, and after that I’d do my own set before the big jams. The flow of the show felt very natural. I’m not sure yet how we’re going do this American tour. I may go back to that same kind of lineup, but there could be some changes. I have to get into that.

Yngwie Malmsteen

Yngwie Malmsteen

(Image: © Phey Palma)

Did you get any kind of audience feedback that might influence how you change the show?

We’re trying to keep the show shorter, because it got up to four hours. Some of the feedback wanted us to keep things a little tighter. Plus, a lot of these venues have curfews, and it you go past a certain time you can get fined. At the end of the tour I got the guys together and said, “OK, listen. The feedback from some people is that the show should be shorter. We have the choice of refining things and trying to keep it at three hours, or we can just go as long as we want. What do you say?” And everybody said, “Fuck it. Let’s just go as long as we want.” [Laughs]

Beyond fun and camaraderie, what do you get musically from this kind of tour?

Honestly, besides the obvious — being able to tour — what I get out of it is this incredible shared experience of creating music with such talented musicians. The way we harmonize together and share that with the audience — that’s no small thing. I’m constantly being pushed by these guys, who are all at the top of their game. And I can’t be at the top of their game, meaning I can’t pantomime or copy what they’re doing, because that’s a no-win situation. You can only use them to push you to be the best you can be. Musically, that’s what I get out of it.

That said, isn’t there a part of you that wants to blow the other guys away? Isn’t that just human nature?

Oh, sure! Of course, you want to rise to the occasion. There’s a part of the ego that wants to be the “god king ruler.” But it just doesn’t work here, because I’m not gonna blow away Zakk at what he does — or Yngwie or Tosin or Nuno. It is what it is. You want them to blow you away, and you want to blow them away.

Now, the ego… At the end of the show, I’ll talk to people, and I want to hear, “You were the best, Steve.” That’s just the human condition. We all want to be on the pedestal. At the same time, you get a little tired of it, because it doesn’t always work. It almost gets to be, “Well, so what?” I can find three people who think I’m the best, but there might be 10 who think otherwise. So the idea of an all-night test to see who’s the best is just a big fucking wank.

So you’re not looking at it as a four-hour version of your famous scene from the movie Crossroads?

Oh, God, no! [Laughs] Could you imagine? Four hours of that? That would get boring pretty quick. [Pauses, thinks] Or it could be very entertaining. Who knows?

Zakk Wylde in action with Generation Axe

Zakk Wylde in action with Generation Axe

(Image: © Phey Palma)

I spoke to Tosin recently, and he told me that some of the jam songs, like “Highway Star,” were out of his wheelhouse. Was that kind of your idea, taking somebody out of his comfort zone?

Totally. I knew that some of those songs were out of Tosin’s comfort zone, because his mind works very differently than the conventional metal guitar player. He can play a rock pentatonic song, but it’s like me playing the blues — it’s just a little different. When we did “Highway Star,” we added all of these completely different solo sections for each guy that really worked around their comfort zones. I’m mixing a live record of the Asian tour right now, and “Highway Star” will be on there. You’ll hear what each guy did on it, and it’s sensational.

Aside from Generation Axe, what else are you working on? Will there be a new studio album soon?

I’m doing a bunch of things. One thing I’m setting up is the “Big Mama-Jama Jamathon” that’s going last for 52 hours. It’ll take place September 28 through 30 at a new auditorium of the Musicians Institute. It’s a fundraiser for Extraordinary Families — a foster care unit that I’m on the board of directors of. I’ll be inviting all sorts of people. Everybody I know — come up and play.

Are you going to play for 52 hours?

Oh, God, no! No, I’m too old for that. [Laughs] Other than that, I’ve got a few other things that lead up to Generation Axe, and in the meantime I’m kind of plotting my next record. I would love to be one of those artists who can crank out a record a year, but I get involved in so many things that I enjoy. It’s just part of my M.O. Unfortunately for the fans that like my proper studio records, they’ll have to wait.