Steve Vai Talks 'Passion and Warfare' and Its Sophisticated Antecedent, 'Modern Primitive'

(Image credit: Daniel Knighton/Getty Images)

It’s hard to explain the excitement and anticipation surrounding the release of Steve Vai’s second solo album, Passion and Warfare, when it was released in September 1990.

In an era known for outrageous guitar playing, the album promised to be the last word—a veritable Macy’s Fourth of July fireworks display of technique, tones and color.

One song was rumored to feature no less than 30 backward guitars, while another track, “For the Love of God,” was recorded after a reported four straight days of meditating, fasting and non-stop practicing.

“I was trying to push myself to the limit,” says Vai. “When it came time to record ‘For the Love of God,’ my fingers were totally gone. I had pictures of my fingers taken after that session, and they were bleeding under the skin.”

Produced and engineered by the guitarist himself, the album was the culmination of 20 years of study, experimentation, 12-hour marathon practice days and serious rock star image building. No mere compendium of “Steve’s latest riffs,” it was crafted to be the roadmap to the future of the guitar; a project so sprawling and ambitious, Vai had to develop a revolutionary seven-string guitar to capture all the notes rattling around in his skull.

Passion and Warfare was nothing less than the guitarist’s bid for immortality, and if it had the added benefit of leaving contemporaries like Edward Van Halen and Yngwie Malmsteen in the dust, so be it.

To really understand the genesis of the album, you have to travel back to 1980, when Vai was invited to join Frank Zappa’s band. Zappa, a guitarist and composer of complex, satirical music, had a reputation as a fearsome bandleader that demanded nothing less than perfection from musicians. While the gig did not make the 20-year-old a pop star—Zappa’s music was too bizarre and underground for that—Vai was immediately put on the short list of “musicians to watch” in the guitar community. To be so young and receive validation by someone as discerning and brilliant as Frank Zappa was no small thing, and people began to take notice as his street cred soared.

It was clear that big things were in store for the kid who could play anything Zappa could dish out, but it would take a few years. After leaving Frank’s band in 1983, Vai bought a house in Los Angeles where he built a modest recording studio in his backyard. There, he produced, engineered and recorded his first solo album Flex-Able, a compendium of warped instrumentals that were fabulously absurd and technically jaw-dropping.

The independent album sold surprisingly well, and Vai gained a reputation as the thinking man’s guitar hero. It was an impression further solidified by his band, The Classified, a progressive, Zappa-esque unit that appealed to a small group of hipsters in Los Angeles who had little use for the growing Eighties hair metal scene. The only downside was, it seemed like Vai was headed for nothing more than cult status, when suddenly he shifted gears.

In 1984, he replaced Yngwie Malmsteen in the hard rock unit Alcatrazz. After recording one fairly unremarkable album with the band, he left to join David Lee Roth’s high profile post–Van Halen band. Overnight the cult hero became one of the world’s most visible and celebrated lead guitarists, and his meteoric rise continued after he appeared in the 1986 blockbuster film Crossroads, where he played a pivotal role as the devil’s guitarist.

By 1990, Vai was a household name, and he wasn’t about to let the moment slip through his nimble fingers. Using his fame and his dazzling chops, he set out to make nothing less than the ultimate guitar album.
Upon the record’s release, Guitar World wrote: “Each track on Passion and Warfare features ravishing neo-psychedelic stereo panoramas reminiscent of Jimi Hendrix and even Sgt. Pepper’s–era Beatles. This recording is not about playing diminished scales at full throttle, or tapping with four fingers—it’s nothing less than the guitar as an orchestra. It’s also one of the damnedest things we’ve ever heard.”

All these years later, it still is.

When Vai announced he was commemorating the 25th anniversary of the album with a special newly remastered double CD edition of the album, it seemed only right to honor the occasion. But leave it to Steve to throw an interesting left curve. In addition to four previously unreleased tracks from the Passion and Warfare sessions, he has included the first ever release of Modern Primitive, a collection of songs based on song sketches and works-in-progress composed and recorded by Vai between the time of Flex-Able in 1984 and Passion and Warfare in 1990. It’s what Vai calls “the missing link between the two records.”

No throwaway, Modern Primitive features some of the most exciting music he has created since, well, Passion and Warfare. We caught up with Steve while he was driving, which was appropriate. As we chatted, the conversation veered into multiple directions before heading into parts unknown.

Can you tell me a little bit about who you were as a person at the time of the release of Passion and Warfare? What were your musical and commercial goals?

To really explain that, I’d have to go back five or six years before the release of the album. I recorded my first solo album Flex-Able in 1984, and it was a very innocent project. I released it independently and had very modest expectations in terms of sales or success. I really wasn’t thinking of a professional career or being famous. I had this incredible music teacher in high school and I always thought, Hey, if I ever just ended up teaching music at a high school, that would be great, but I loved the guitar and I loved making music. I loved the whole process of getting an idea and then fishing it out. One of my greatest strengths back then was not really having any expectations—I would just do things without putting too much thought about whether it would sell. My main focus was just on thrilling myself with the funny music I was making.

You were playing at the time with Frank Zappa. What was his influence?

I was enamored with Frank’s music, and that flowed into a lot of the stuff I was doing, because he seemed to have it all: the guitar playing, the comedy, the composition, all these things I really responded to. I was in my early twenties when I recorded Flex-Able, which is an interesting time in your life. You've got this almost revolutionary spirit and you really want to bang away at the things that are interesting to you. Since I had my own little studio—a shed that I converted in my backyard—I was really learning a lot about recording, engineering and how to work with people, skills that would become very important later when I recorded Passion and Warfare and my subsequent solo albums.

There’s a sizable six-year gap between Flex-Able and Passion and Warfare. What was happening to you and how did your attitude shift?

There was definitely evolution and growth. Once I left Frank, I put together a couple different bands, and just started playing all this crazy music. One of the groups was called the Classified, with Tommy Mars on keyboards and vocals, Stu Hamm on bass, Sue Mathis on keyboards and vocals and Chris Frazier on drums. I tracked probably about eight or 10 songs from that period and there were probably another dozen songs that weren’t recorded. I never did anything with any of the music and it just sat on a shelf, because I drifted off into other things, replacing Yngwie Malmsteen in Alcatrazz, and joining David Lee Roth’s band after he left Van Halen.

But I really liked what we created in the Classified, and over the years I was always looking for a suitable way to release it. When I decided to revisit Passion and Warfare, I saw it as an opportunity to present those “lost years,” as part of the package, which is what you hear on the accompanying disc, Modern Primitive.

Some of the material on Modern Primitive is quite strange, even by your standards. Progressive rock was very big in the 80's. I’m having a hard time figuring out where The Classified would’ve played.

We’d play small clubs in Hollywood like the Music Machine and Club Lingerie. The audiences weren’t huge, but between friends, family, Zappa fans or people that had responded to Flex-Able, we did well. Our music was definitely an acquired taste. However, you’re right, the whole hair metal phenomenon was starting to pick up steam, so we were outsiders.

Was that frustrating?

Not really, because we were having fun. The Classified didn’t have any commercial expectations. We knew that the music wasn’t very accessible, but when you are compelled to do something, the enthusiasm eclipses the desire to be famous. I just thought, Maybe a couple of people will hear it and like it and that’s good enough. That was my secret weapon, really.

Playing with Zappa probably gave you confidence to pursue your vision, no matter how skewed it was.

That’s correct. I was very fortunate. I had this massive machine that was just chugging away in back of me, consisting of everything from the reputation of being a Zappa musician, to having a left-field hit with “The Attitude Song” from Flex-Able, not to mention making the appearance in the hit movie Crossroads. All these things came together to create a weird kind of mystique. Then, when I joined David Lee Roth’s band, I suddenly became a part of the mainstream.

You very jokingly referred to this period as “Cro-Magnon Vai,” but in many ways, the music on Modern Primitive strikes me as being more sophisticated than the music that would eventually appear on Passion and Warfare.

Yeah, I was very interested in composition, hard things to play and quirkiness. A lot of that quirkiness followed me through my career, which I love.

When you joined Roth’s band in 1986, did you feel like you were selling out or compromising?

Not really because when you look at my history, I’ve always had two sides to my music. When I was young I loved complex things like Leonard Bernstein’s score to West Side Story, but when my sister came home with Led Zeppelin II, I also imagined being Jimmy Page. I loved the rock and roll energy of bands like Kiss, Queen and Aerosmith, and playing simple, cool, aggressive, showy music on big stages. It’s very interesting, when I heard that David Lee Roth was looking for a guitar player, I had this moment of clarity and I said, “That’s my gig and I’m doing it.” Then the call came in. I didn’t do anything. The call came in and I felt very natural in the Roth band.

Maybe I’m reading too much into it, but listening to Passion and Warfare and reading the liner notes with fresh eyes, it seems like you were in a struggle to find a balance between the progressive musician and the populist arena rocker. Two of the songs at the beginning of Passion and Warfare, “Erotic Nightmares” and “Animals,” work to have it both ways. Both feature classic metal riffs, but then get pretty weird.

I’m not sure I was “struggling.” Things like struggle and trying to find balance are deterrents. They’re abstract veils that prevent you from being as creative as you can be. I didn’t think about struggle. I didn’t worry about fitting in, because I was enjoying the idea that I didn’t fit in anywhere.

That may be, but the liner notes to Passion and Warfare show there was some internal conflict. There are spoken word lines throughout the album that talk about balancing the physical with the metaphysical. For example, you say, “We may be human but we’re still animals,” or you talk about “walking a line between Pagan and Christian.” There is a very palpable sense of trying to pull together both spectrums of your personality.

Well, that’s a very interesting observation, and it’s true. Musically, I knew what I wanted to bring into the world, but on a personal level there was intense psychological drama going on in my head. In my early twenties I went through a very difficult period mentally. I was dealing with anxiety, confusion and depression.

Was it caused by being thrust into high-profile situations at such a young age?

I’m not sure. Looking back at that period, the only thing I can really think of that might’ve caused my panic was when I was a young boy, I was deathly afraid of being famous because I had heard that famous people go insane. It was a weird idea and I’m not sure who planted that seed, but it grew. So I would be, “Okay then, I’m not going to become famous.”

When I started receiving attention by playing with Zappa, there was a lot of pressure and I think it triggered this fear that had been dormant, and I actually started losing my mind. Between the ages 20 and 21, I had a big mental fallout. It was the best thing that could’ve happened because it drove me to realize that all that stuff in my head was just bullshit. [laughs]

In the Flex-Able days, there was a lot of innocence and a lot of desire to be funny and cheerful and uplifting and all that, but at the same time I recorded an album of material that I never released entitled The Dark Night of the Soul that really focused on my inner turmoil. I still have it on the shelf, but I choose not to revisit it, because whatever you revisit—either in your mind, or in “the now”—you reignite those flames and you invite that energy back into your life. I’m just not that guy anymore and there’s no sense for me to commiserate with others by releasing music that would inspire their own misery.

When did you pull out of this dark state of mind?

Probably during the Modern Primitive stage, but I went through another weird personality shift when I first started experience rock stardom. That came in through the back door of my ego and really wreaked havoc, and I became a very intense guy. The demonic character I played in the movie Crossroads was real in a sense. This is where a lot of the energy on Passion and Warfare came from. The song “The Animal” was a depiction of the human struggle between the sexual and spiritual. But by that time, I was very comfortable in my skin too. I wasn’t going through those fits of anxiety. I wasn’t depressed at all during that period. I was just an egomaniac. [laughs]

What are your thoughts on Passion and Warfare now?

A lot was going on in the scene at the time that was inspiring me. Instrumental records were really starting to get popular. Joe Satriani had released Surfing with the Alien, and his formula was really beautiful. When Surfing came out, I realized that I’d have to be very careful how I adapted the formula, because he did it so well.

But more importantly, I had been playing in David Lee Roth’s band, and I realized it was an opportunity for me to kind of shift my focus. I wanted to just forget about everything, and do what felt right for me. Don’t get me wrong, some aspect of me wanted commercial success, and that’s why I included things like “I Would Love To” and “The Audience Is Listening.” I understood that radio could be my friend, and that they and MTV would play my stuff if I gave them something to work with. So I did.

But the thing that I’m most grateful about when I look back was the simplicity in which I followed my instincts. I eliminated so much of the stress in my head by just saying, “Look, man. If you want to do something as bizarre as ‘The Riddle,’ just do it. It doesn’t matter. Just do it.” When I listen to “Love Secrets” now, I can’t even believe I made it.

Why did you decide to produce Passion and Warfare yourself?

There were a few reasons. The first was, I was very, very interested in the recording process. I’ve always loved the idea that you could overdub and manipulate sound in various ways. I was fascinated with the stereo spectrum, the real estate of the audio world, the left, the right, the up, the down, the EQ, the compression, the effects, how they sit in the track. This was all really part of my interest level. Many people don’t notice how important all those components are, but essentially, I knew what I wanted and I knew how to get it so I just did it.

Another reason was, I didn’t feel comfortable subjecting anybody else to my music in a production sense. The worst thing for me was to impose on people my personal musical aspirations, because in order to do that, you have to find somebody that really resonates with what you’re trying to do and then can identify it and then help get it out of you on a greater level. I just didn’t know anybody back then that could do that.

The other was just financial. I’ve been really very thrifty through my life and very aware of finances. I always owned my own publishing. No one ever writes a check on my behalf. Managers have always invoiced me, so I’ve always kept a very tight hold on my finances and paying the producers and engineers was just cost-prohibitive at the time.

It’s very subtle, but I’m always impressed with how you used wet-and-dry signals and EQ as part of your compositions. You use them in a unique way to pull the listener’s attention to certain guitar lines. I don’t know how you could really communicate those subtleties to an outside producer or engineer.

Yeah, and sometimes I would get these outrageous ideas when I was working with an engineer, and it was difficult to pull them off. I was working on this one project and I had this idea to record 24 guitars backward for a certain section, and the producer's like, “What do you mean?” I said, “Well, there’s this section, and I want to compose a piece of music, write it out for 24 guitars, and then rewrite it out backward and then flip the tape, record all the guitars and flip the tape back, and I know exactly what it’s going to sound like. I can hear it already.” And they’re like, “You’re crazy. You can’t do this.” I ended up sneaking into the studio at night when nobody was around to do it. When it’s my own music, I don’t want to sit there and have a discussion about it. I know what I want, I know how to do it, and here I go.

One of the hallmarks of your style, which has been absorbed by popular guitar culture, are those quick, portamento slides and bends that you do into a note. Where did that come from?

That’s a good question, but I’m really not sure where I got that. You shape things based on how you hear them in your head. The legato fluidity, elastic, flexible playing that I do stems from a couple of things, and I’d highly recommend guitarists to do this. I would watch myself play in the mirror and I would imagine how I wanted my fingers to look, and I wanted everything to look elegant, effortless, mellifluous, beautiful, flowing and totally in control. You’re allowed to imagine those things and once you start imagining them, they just start happening. The thing that stops people is they like to imagine them, but then there’s this little voice that says, “Yeah, but you can’t do that.” “You’re not good enough,” or, “This isn’t acceptable. This isn’t what Randy Rhoads would do.” Because I thought I’d never ever be as good as any of those guys, it was totally okay for me to find what I was good at, and I was accidentally developing my own style by doing so.

“For the Love of God” was kind of a defining moment for guitar players in the Nineties. It demonstrated you could have chops and still play with real fire and emotion.

Yes, the perplexing illusionary dilemma for a lot of people. The melody dictated the intention of the song, meaning the melody just arose. I picked up a guitar and I started playing chords and I started singing the melody. Very, very simple. A melody with certain chords evokes emotional states. It just does. It brings you places. If something’s very aggressive, you can find yourself getting into it that way. If something’s very beautiful…

In a weird way, it’s your version of the blues.

I know this sounds extraordinary, but almost everything I do is based on the blues, or the blues scale. But getting back to the perplexing dilemma of emotional content versus technique. That’s a common question I get and it’s a common dilemma in many people’s minds. My answer to it is this: In any field that you’re in, whether it’s art or business, music, whatever, sports especially, you have to go through a phase where you’re developing your technique and you have to focus on preparing your vehicle, so to speak. If you’re an athlete, you have to spend many years focusing on the movements that it takes to be elite. It’s the same with playing the guitar, or any instrument.

But in order for anything to carry any energy of value, you have to go deeper than the technique. The technique becomes your tool to express something deeper. If you don’t go there, then your product is going to sound cold, intellectual and void of any real energy. That can be a trap for some people. You can fascinate yourself with your own technique and get lost in it.

We touched on this a little bit earlier, as groundbreaking as Passion and Warfare is, you obviously had an eye on the marketplace. “The Audience Is Listening” is…

…a little nod and a wink to Van Halen’s “Hot for Teacher.” But the funny thing was, the first interview I did for Passion and Warfare, this guy said to me, “I noticed you’re quoting the main riff in Jeff Beck’s ‘Blue Wind’ on ‘I’d Love To.’ ” I said, What? No I’m not! Then I listened to it and I was like, d’oh! I didn’t even realize that happened, but how could it not? Beck’s Wired and Blow By Blow were like monoliths to me. But, yes, “The Audience Is Listening” was admittedly a piss-take on “Hot for Teacher.”

Let’s conclude by going back to Modern Primitive. Whenever I listen to a new Steve Vai album, I always look for something I’ve never heard before. On “Never Forever” there is this very interesting section where these ambient voices shadow a series of bending guitar lines. It’s an astonishing sound.

I can’t tell you how grateful I am that you picked up on that, because there’s nothing more exciting to me than coming up with an idea that’s exciting and then having somebody else appreciate it. When I created that section, I thought, I'm going to do this and nobody’s going to get it, so I’m tickled you noticed.

I had these beautiful Lydian chord changes, and I said, Okay, I'm going to do a solo, but I want to do something new. There’s something out there, I don’t know what it is, but it will come to me.

I put the keyboards down, the voices in the background, and I was putzing with the pitch to make it flow a certain way, right? So then I thought, Okay, now I’ve got to put a solo on top of this. Then, all of a sudden, I had the inspiration to play the main melody but morph it into the motion of these slowing pitch-bended vocals. Immediately, I saw the whole thing and thought, Oh my God! That would be so fucking cool. I can’t wait to hear it, because I already have it in my head. It’s already there. It’s a low-hanging fruit; you’ve just got to do it. What a fun thing it was to do that solo, because it's unique to anything I’ve done before and it worked. It’s almost as if the vocals and keyboard from the background are pulling you into their world. They’re morphing the melody, and every time the keyboards move within that melody, I reformatted the melody. I’m giving you the technical explanation. Really, it was a visual thing. Then, when it was done, I sat back and I listened and I just felt so much gratitude. It was so much better than what I had even expected. It worked so well, and you know what? You’re allowed to feel good about what you do. Especially when you feel like you’ve hit the mark.

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Brad Tolinski

A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away Brad was the editor of Guitar World from 1990 to 2015. Since his departure he has authored Eruption: Conversations with Eddie Van Halen, Light & Shade: Conversations with Jimmy Page and Play it Loud: An Epic History of the Style, Sound & Revolution of the Electric Guitar, which was the inspiration for the Play It Loud exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City in 2019.