From the Archive: Steve Vai Discusses His 1996 Album, 'Fire Garden'

Here's an interview with Steve Vai from the October 1996 issue of Guitar World, which featured Kurt Cobain on the cover.To see the Cobain cover -- and all the GW covers from 1996 -- click here.

There are a lot of people who don't want to hear any sounds emanating from my mouth," says Steve Vai. That makes the news about Fire Garden, the guitar virtuoso's latest album, extremely shocking: Steve Vai sings.

To his credit, Vai is not a whit defensive about a decision that may disturb even some of his most loyal fans. "I love to sing," he says. "It has always been very close to my heart. I'm going for it on this record, even though I know I may be in for some harsh criticism."

The truth be told, Fire Garden, Vai 's first release on 550 Music, is not his debut as a major-league vocalist. That's his voice you hear on much of Flex-Able (Akhashic) and its sequel, Flex-Able Leftovers, the guitarist's self-produced records from the early Eighties. Vai also did some lead vocals on his ill-fated Sex and Religion (Relativity, 1993), and he often sang background during his tenure as resident guitar monster with the late Frank Zappa.

Vai's previous vocal efforts notwithstanding, Fire Garden is his first true effort as a singer/songwriter/guitar hero. Small wonder that he finds the prospect of performing his new material a bit daunting. "I don't know," says Vai, "what's going to happen when I get on stage and have to sing and play at the same time."

But it's difficult to associate anything resembling fear with Vai. Fire Garden is the most daring and ambitious album of his career. More than 75 minutes long, the record sustains a burning intensity throughout that is simply breathtaking. Just about every aspect of Steve's prodigious musicianship informs this record.

"What I do," says Vai, "is an amalgamation of all the music I've ever heard, plus a little of my own inspiration and the desire to hear music that I want to be stimulated by. I grabbed from every area on this record; it's a total 'Vai' record, whatever that means."

Vai is about to embark on an adventure that would intimidate even the most overly self -assured, arrogant -to-the-point -of-mental-illness shredder. He, Joe Satriani and Eric Johnson will set forth this fall on a super tour to end all super tours.

"For me, it's an event of a lifetime," says Vai. "To be on the same bill with those guys is, besides being a great honor, like a dream come true."

GUITAR WORLD: Can you describe the layout of Fire Garden?

The way it worked out, the album has two phases: Phase One is the instrumental phase, which is essentially "side 1," and Phase Two is the vocal phase, or "side 2."

I amassed over 75 minutes of music, which is enough for a double album. If I released it as a double album, though, it would be much more expensive. So, instead, I crammed two albums worth of material onto one album, and I'm presenting it in two phases.

Are you the lead singer on all of the vocal material?

That's me!

The first vocal bit we hear is on the track called "Deepness." What's the story behind that piece?
"Deepness" functions as an intro to the second phase of the record. I sing a melody a long with the guitar, with some orchestration added. I didn't want to just start the vocal section of the album cold, 'cause this will be the first time a lot of people have ever heard me sing. I wanted to bring it in with something a little more mellifluous.

How do you feel now about this foray into the lead vocal arena?

It's frightening. I suspect that I'm going to have a very good time, because I always wanted to sing more on stage. I like doing it, but it requires a whole new set of brain muscles.

When you're just the guitarist, if you break your ankle, or if you have a sore throat, you can still get onstage and play. If you're the singer, it's a different story. Being a singer beats you up more. I've always been content to stand back and let everyone else sing. I find it very hard to play the guitar and sing at the same time. If I could do that, I'd probably have a career! [laughs]

You're putting yourself in a bit of a tough situation, aren't you?

Well, yes and no. I really do get into singing live. I lack confidence, but once I get over that and really let loose, it'll be fun. I'll have to pace myself.

The problem is, I don't have the same kind of control over my voice that I do with my guitar playing. I'm not a professional singer; I don't know my "pet," so to speak. I don't know when he's going to bite me or when I have to feed him. It'll take time to become friends with this beast, to get intimately familiar with all of the ins and outs of singing.

Will you have to adjust your approach to performing?

Yes, I'll have to adjust my entire approach to performing. Normally, when I'm on tour, I can do 10 shows in a row with no days off. I prefer it that way. But you can't do that when you're the singer. Once I get through one song, I'm hoarse! It takes so much for me to sing those songs, so I’m still learning how to sing properly.

One of the reasons I'm singing on record at all is because I met this guy named Warren Barigian, who is more than just a vocal coach; his approach is unique and very conceptual. He deals with something he calls vocal biometrics. He believes that the reason people can't express themselves with their voices, or even in other ways, is because of psychological hang-ups and traumas that exist in our psyche. This is, of course, the basis of modern psychology. Through this intense series of exercises, which includes breathing techniques, movements and physical manipulations, certain anxieties and hang-ups are released.

It's absolutely frightening. It takes weeks to get over one session. But addressing these issues deep in your psyche affects the way you sing, the way you speak, everything. Barigian has worked with a lot of famous vocalists, like Meat Loaf, Tom Petty, Cher and others who've experienced serious problems with their voices. His training is the reason I can sing at all, because I was very apprehensive about singing and very intimidated. I'm still far from being a professional singer.

That's probably why you spent so many years becoming a motherfucker on the guitar.

Sure! No one has to tell me how psychologically damaged I am to play the guitar the way I do!

For me, the music on "There's a Fire in the House" conjures up the image of a very confused person, screaming at the top of his lungs.

I'm so glad you picked up on that. It was exactly my intent. The song is the story of a kid who's trapped in a house that's on fire. He wakes up on account of this big blast, which is the first sound you hear, and then, hearing sirens, realizes that the house is on fire. He runs from one floor to another, and that is reflected in the way the music progresses. The solo evokes his escape from a floor that has become engulfed in flames to the next level, with the playing becoming more intense all the while. Part of the music suggests the flames speaking to him.

The inspiration behind the tune is a bit existential. But much like a dream, this is the way the story unfolds. In building up the solo I thought, "What does a person who has nowhere else to go feel as he approaches the top of a burning house?" That sheer panic is expressed with that freaked-out guitar riff, especially when the second guitar comes in and the two guitars start banging off each other.

How did you get that guitar-on-fire sound?

There's some serious processing going on. I sent the signal through an Eventide DSP 4000, using a patch called "dead battery," and tweaked it to get more of the "burning" sound. After recording about an hour of that stuff, I went through and found the right " burn " for that section of the tune. I wanted the guitar to sound like it was on fire, like it was exploding into flames. That device did the trick.

The very first main theme, the 7/4 figure, has a very grandiose quality that is on the scale of a movie soundtrack.

It's part of my " if I were king of the forest" mentality. I wanted to open the record and then the live shows, too-with something that was thematic and grand. I got a feeling for that from all the arena shows I did with David Lee Roth and Whitesnake. When you're in an arena and have to take control of an audience that's as big as 20,000 people, you have to suck them into your world through the music. This was something that I envisioned working with an audience of that size.

So, the size of the music is a reflection of the size of the audience.

Yeah, if that 's what you're going for. There's also the technique of bringing the audience down into real intimacy, where you try to speak to each member individually. The song " Hand On Heart" is along those lines.

You've often demonstrated your attraction to grand, movie-like themes. Where does t his come from?

I like the idea of creating tapestries, or scenarios, with the music, whether it's with improvisation or composition. Writing movie music is not as easy as sitting in your apartment in Santa Monica and trying to write it blind, though. Scoring a film involves working with the director's vision and dealing with the whole scheme of the film. The music should not be the number one thing; it has to work with the impression of the film. The music can help create a character's personality, and it can also carry the plot.

What are some of the films you've scored?

I scored a film called PCU, which was a comedy, and I worked on Bill And Ted's Bogus Journey, Encino Man, Dudes and Crossroads. Right now, I'm putting together a compilation record of my film music. It'll be a fun record; there's some wicked-ass guitar stuff on there.

Did you enjoy working with Ry Cooder on Crossroads?

That was easily one of the greatest one-on-one musical experiences of my entire life. At one session , he picked up my guitar and started to play. He began stomping his foot, and that became this iron beat that was so bluesy and so cool. Then he played some of the greatest stuff I've ever heard . I felt like a dwarf around that guy.

At one session with Ry, I just couldn't grasp where the "one" was. It was like when I played "Bamboozled By Love" with Frank [Zappa]. That song wasn't complicated, but I just kept hearing the "one" in the wrong place . When it happened with Ry, he got so pissed off, he tore me a new asshole! It was really embarrassing, but it was really funny at the same time.

Getting back to "There's a Fire in the House": it seems as though you adopted a cinematic approach to the music, even though there's no film. The music tells a very specific story that runs through the entire piece.

That's true. Since there's no film, though, I don't have to worry about dialogue getting in the way of the everything! [laughs]

Overall, I think the essence of Fire Garden is that you complement the out-and-out virtuosic intensity of the album with a sense of humor and a sense of balance.

I like to keep the sense of humor in there. I like intensity in music, though sometimes when I'm listening to a particularly intense record by some band, I'll get the impression that these are some severely tormented , miserable people. This isn't to say that I'm not tormented myself in some ways, but I try to keep it fun and comical, too. That's another important component of my personality.

Did you put the music on this record together with any specific goals in mind?

When I started out, the name of the record was Fire Coma, and I'd actually written a script. This music was intended as the soundtrack, or, more accurately, a blow-by-blow report of the script.

Some years ago, you suggested that you were going to make a film. Is Fire Garden that project?

Yes. A problem I had with the record, though, was that it was too dark, and I didn't really want to go in that direction only. I wanted to put "Warm Regards" on there, and I wanted to include "Dyin' Day," a song I'd worked up when I was collaborating with Ozzy. I didn't want the record to be just Mongolian metal, and I didn't want it to be just like Sex and Religion. So, I started to move away from the idea of the Fire Coma script, and the record turned into what it is.

Were some of the tunes on Alien Love Secrets from the original Fire Coma project?

Yeah. Stuff like "Bad Horsie" and "Kill the Guy with the Ball" were in that same, heavy vein. I like doing heavy rock, but when I do a whole record of heavy stuff, it gets too intense and loses a certain edge. I wanted to keep the record musical, listenable and well balanced -- to be stuff I'd like to listen to -- something musically sound with cool guitar playing, vocal material, plus some things to get a laugh out of. I feel like I've achieved these goals to the best of my ability. The record 's not focused in one direction.

Is that you playing the insane piano part on the "Angelfood" movement from the "Fire Garden Suite"?

Yes, but that was all programmed. I wrote that whole thing out and then assigned it to a sequencer, using a sampled piano. I have a good working knowledge of the piano, but while I can write something as complicated as that for the instrument, there's no way I could sit down and play it. The sequencing software is called Vision, and it allows you to really get in there and sound "human." Believe it or not, it didn't take that long to put the piano part together. What did take a long time was editing all of the bee sounds together at the beginning of the tune.

How did the piece evolve?

The whole thing began with the thought of a live performance. I start with one instrument, like the electric sitar, and then, when I'm done with it, the sound of that instrument hangs over into the next section, where I switch to an acoustic guitar. Then I move to the electric guitar and play on top of sequenced sounds that hold over from the other instruments. That idea was the seed, and as I progressed, the piece metamorphosed.

When I was a kid, I went to see the [fusion] band Return To Forever, and it was a thoroughly musical event. I want to add my own twist to the presentation of the music, by having the performance hit you on a visual level, too. It's got to sound good, look good and be entertaining in every way it can.

"Tales from the Black Forest," a guitar/piano duet on AI DiMeola's Land Of the Midnight Sun album, is reminiscent of the section of the " Fire Garden Suite" you just described.

That tune was actually the inspiration for the piano/guitar thing. I wish I could have gotten [RTF keyboardist] Chick Corea to play on it!

You do some major burning on electric sitar on this tune. Was it difficult to play such complicated stuff on what must be a relatively unfamiliar instrument?

Well, it's a completely written part; I wrote it to be played on that instrument. The cool thing about that sitar part is that it's highly processed. It's going through four different amplifiers, spread and delayed in a certain way so it sounds like four different instruments. It's also doubled with strings and xylophones which come in and out of the arrangement. This section of the suite is called "Pusa Road," which is the second movement.

This section is very Zappa-esque, in that a complex melody is played in unison by a variety of instruments, particularly the combination of percussive and melodic instruments.

I was a bit apprehensive about putting the xylophone and the percussion in there because it is very "Frank," but then I just thought, I want to hear this!

In this sense, I think Fire Garden is more reflective of who you are, musically, than any of your previous albums.

That was a part of my intent. Writing music like this fills a certain void. It's hard to find music like this, and personally, I find it very satisfying to listen to. Having this type of music on the record could very well be to the detriment of any "pop icon-ness" I may have the potential to achieve, but you see, I have no choice -- I have to put this out there. If I made a record that was nothing but "hit"-type songs, without all of the "episodes" that I love to hear, I would feel really unfulfilled.

As an artist, you don't want to keep repeating yourself. But there are those fans who want you to stay the same as you were in the past. When the Beatles broke up, everybody felt like grabbing Lennon and McCartney: "C'mon, can't you guys just work together again, like the old days?"

Is there any truth to the rumor that you recently campaigned vigorously to be in Perry Farrell's band, Porno For Pyros?

In a Guitar World interview with Porno For Pyros' guitarist Peter DiStefano [GW, Aug. '96], DiStefano said that Perry showed him 10 personal letters that I sent to him, begging to be in the band. I would like to set the record straight, because I've been asked about this in too many interviews since then.

I met Perry Farrell in a parking lot once; we were both rehearsing at a place called Mates, in Los Angeles. I'd heard that he was working on a film, and I sent a message to him that I'd love to collaborate with him on a film score. The message I got back was that Perry's only comment was, "Steve Vai?! Wasn't he in Whitesnake?"

So, no, I never sent 10 personal letters -- now people can stop asking me about it.

What's your take on David Lee Roth rejoining Van Halen?

I've always been a fan of the early Van Halen stuff. Who isn't? I think it's great that Dave's back in the band. I hope they sell millions of records and go to heaven in a little rowboat! [laughs] I'll be one of the first people in line to get a ticket to see that show, if they take it on tour. They could sell out the Sahara Desert!

As someone who's known Dave for so long, were you shocked to see him and Eddie get back together?

Understand that in order to get along in a band, a certain chemistry is needed, and you push every button that a person has in their psychological makeup before you cross that threshold into "brotherhood." This is especially true of the relationship between a singer and a guitar player. So, I wasn't surprised that they broke up, and I'm not surprised that they're getting back together.

Whose the guitar super-tour with Eric Johnson and your old buddy, Joe Satriani?

Joe's. He's been trying to put something like this together for years.

When will the tour begin?

October third. We'll do between 20 and 25 shows. We're trying to be careful not to let it get so indulgent that it'll become fatiguing. Each of us will play about a 45-minute set, and there's a fabulous guitarist named Chris Duarte opening the show.

And the three headliners will be allowed to play only a certain number of notes within your respective sets, right?

Right! And we'll fine each other if we go over that number. I'll be broke after the first song!

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Andy Aledort

Guitar World Associate Editor Andy Aledort is recognized worldwide for his vast contributions to guitar instruction, via his many best-selling instructional DVDs, transcription books and online lessons. Andy is a regular contributor to Guitar World and Truefire, and has toured with Dickey Betts of the Allman Brothers, as well as participating in several Jimi Hendrix Tribute Tours.