Steve Vai: Strings and Things

Originally published in Guitar World, February 2010

Steve Vai continues to explore the wild stringdom of his infinite musical universe with Where the Wild Things Are, his new and ambitious live performance DVD.

It is undoubtedly no small feat to keep up with a virtuoso guitarist like Steve Vai, especially when performing some of his more intricately arranged songs. So when it came to pulling together a band for his new nearly three-hour-long live-performance DVD, Where the Wild Things Are, the guitarist knew he needed a band that was up to the rigors of the job.

“I needed to have a special group of people that would be able to work as hard as was necessary to make this music come to life,” Vai says. “You can rehearse and rehearse and rehearse, but it still may not sound like music; it’ll just sound like numbers if you’re not careful. And this band had the talent—and, most importantly, the desire—to transcend the rigors of the task.”

Recorded and filmed in 2009 at the State Theatre in Minneapolis, Where the Wild Things Are showcases an expansive two-hour-and-40-minute set that features new arrangements of many of Vai’s greatest tracks. Highlights include fan favorites such as “Liberty,” “Tender Surrender,” “Building the Church,” “Answers” and “For the Love of God.” The DVD offers 26 songs, plus more than an hour of bonus material, including behind-the-scenes action and band interviews. For this special project, Steve assembled a new lineup of virtuosi: violinists Alex DePue and Ann Marie Calhoun, bassist Bryan Beller, drummer Jeremy Colson, guitarist Dave Weiner and lap steel player Zack Wiesinger.

To say that some of the music on Where the Wild Things Are is difficult, or ambitious, is a huge understatement. “Close to impossible” would be a more accurate description. But since his days as Frank Zappa’s “stunt transcriber” and performer of “impossible guitar parts,” Vai has been no stranger to pulling off the impossible and making it look easy. “Whether the music I’m working on is complex or not,” Vai says, “at the end of the day, it has to sound like a piece of music, not a musically intellectual gymnastic exercise.”

Steve Vai was born on June 6, 1960, in Carle Place, Long Island, New York (he was six on 6/6/66 for you numerology fans). At 19, he came to international prominence as a member of Frank Zappa’s band, and followed this intense apprenticeship with the unenviable task of filling Yngwie Malmsteen’s shoes in Alcatrazz. That, however, was a cakewalk compared to his next assignment: filling Edward Van Halen’s shoes as the guitar foil to rock madman David Lee Roth. The result was one of rock’s most successful and well-loved albums, Roth’s 1986 release, Eat ’Em and Smile. Thanks to the album and its tour, Vai’s stature quickly skyrocketed, securing him a place in the pantheon of rock’s great virtuoso guitarists.

Vai stopped in at the Guitar World studios to discuss this expansive new live DVD, his band and his thoughts on the eternal quest for pure and inspired musical expression.

GUITAR WORLD What was the inspiration behind putting the material together for Where the Wild Things Are?

STEVE VAI I was coming off of my Sound Theories Vol. 1and 2 project, for which I worked with the Netherlands Metropole Orchestra, performing orchestral versions of many of my compositions. That was a big project: it took a long time to compose and arrange the new music, and then get it all copied, rehearse the orchestra, and perform and record all of the shows. From there, I had to edit all of the material from five different shows to put the double disc together.

It was a long process, but it came out really nice. Sound Theories is a very eclectic record—but what would you expect? At that point, I probably should have gone back into the studio to begin working on a new album, but that meant it would have been years between tours with my own band. I thrive on live performance; I’m a touring musician. I’m always looking forward to getting back on tour, because it’s in my blood. So I instead decided to do it down-and-dirty—put together a new show and get back out on the road.

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.

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.”

GW For a project this ambitious, did you have a specific approach or game plan?

VAI With something like this, there are challenges every step of the way. Some of it is very enjoyable, and some of it is just routine. My favorite moment with any project is when I begin to think about the concept, because I’m starting out with a blank canvas and I can put certain parameters on myself, which helps me build upon the idea. For this project, I thought, What can I do that’s unique to what I’ve done before? It’s got to be musical, and it’s got to be accessible, and I want it to have “show” potential, in terms of the performance elements, with an ebb and flow and emotional dynamics. When the two-violin concept came together, I thought, I know this song is going to work, that song is going to work…and it’s going to be a lot of work.

All of that was fun. But then I had to go find the people, which was not fun—it was a pain in the ass. Elements of it were great. For example, when I found the right person, it was like Christmas.

This DVD was the end vision I had all along, and having that vision was the only way I could have gotten through the variety of challenges that arose. Otherwise, the fear and the insecurity would have become overwhelming. I’m susceptible to that just like anyone else, but my excitement for the end product always allows me to take the next step.

GW Some of the songs in this set, such as “For the Love of God” and “Tender Surrender,” are songs that you have been playing for a long time. How has playing these particular songs changed for you over the years?

VAI For musicians, as you grow and move through the creative process, your views on what you’re doing change, and your creative output changes with your experience. I decided long ago that I was not going to get tired of playing these songs. My feeling is that, the moment I get bored playing something, it means I feel like I’ve already done everything I can with that piece of music. And I have never felt that way. I have always felt—from the very first day that I picked up the guitar—that this journey was never going to end. One of the reasons I think I play the way that I do is because I never really thought that I was ever good enough. I’ve always felt like there was more to be discovered. Good enough is not about playing faster each year, because I started slowing down ages ago! It’s about one’s touch on the instrument; it’s your relationship with the note. That relationship can never be deep enough. It’s an endless, endless pool.

When I have the luxury of playing a song that has a beautiful melody, every single time I play it I make a conscious effort to get deeper and deeper into the note. And that quest will never end. If I were to sit here and tell you that I am one with the note, I would be a fool, because you can always go deeper. The deeper you get, the more of a commitment you make, and that’s what people feel when they hear you play. And there’s a payoff, because then you become more in control, in a way. When you feel the note and you feel the music, it’s a beautiful thing. It’s very cathartic.

GW This past year marked the 25th anniversary of your first solo album, the self-produced Flex-Able. What are your feelings today on this seminal part of your Vai-ology?

VAI Any project you do is like a snapshot of who you were at that time. When I broke out the tapes of Flex-Able to create the 25th anniversary edition, and I was listening to them, I was peering into the 22-year-old Steve Vai. I was thinking, who was that guy?

GW He was a guy that wrote tender love songs like “There’s Something Dead in Here,” “Chronic Insomnia” and “Garbage Wrapped in Skin.”

VAI [laughs] “Garbage Wrapped in Skin” is actually going to be on the new release! Anyway, listening to the tapes immediately brought me back to that place, which was such a wonderful, sweet period of my life. Living in Sylmar [California], having that little studio, with my wife Pia—we’ve been together for 30 years—and so many of my friends. It was like a wayward home for musician refugees! There were nine people living in the house, and I had this really great studio in the back. We just made music and we didn’t care about anything. We just did stuff to make each other laugh, and I never expected it to be released. I recorded tons and tons and tons of stuff.

Listening to it brings me back to that time. And it’s a weird record, of course. It’s really quirky. Through the years, I’ve read things about it, and people have said, “Oh, that’s such a weird record, it’s so quirky, it’s nothing like what he does now.” And there have been times when I’ve thought, Yeah, that was bizarre—that’s not me…I’m “Steve Vai,” now! But I went back and listened to it and said, Man, it’s so beautiful because it’s so innocent and it’s so silly. It was a real joy to remaster it, too, because now it sounds completely different. It does have tracks like “The Attitude Song,” and that’s really just one little sliver, and I could have done an entire record like that. But it’s a perfect representation of that time in my life, which was a wonderfully creative period.

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