Steve Vai Interview: New Album, "Inviolate," Is So Very Vai
Written by Marc Parker and Melissa Benefield Parker, Posted in Interviews Musicians
Image attributed to Larry DiMarzio
Steve Vai is a virtuoso guitarist, composer and producer who is considered by many as one of the greatest guitarists of all time. In over 40 years in the industry, he has sold over 15 million records, received three Grammy Awards and recorded with music legends like Frank Zappa, David Lee Roth, Whitesnake and many more. Vai has toured extensively and recorded live projects with G3 (collaborating with different touring lineups including Joe Satriani, John Petrucci, Eric Johnson, Yngwie Malmsteen and Steve Lukather) and Generation Axe, a supergroup he formed with Zakk Wylde, Yngwie Malmsteen, Nuno Bettencourt and Tosin Abasi.
Vai’s new studio album titled Inviolate will be released digitally and on CD January 28, 2022. The LP will follow on March 18. Due to a new shoulder injury, he has postponed his planned tour of North America until the fall. The first US leg of dates will now begin on September 28, 2022, in El Cajon, California, and wrap up the first week of December. The itinerary will now feature performances in 52 markets as opposed to the initial plan of staging 54 shows. All ticket and VIP purchases will be honored for the rescheduled date.
"Then it started to sound like the melody was saying “Little Pretty,” and I was associating that with Dorothy and the witch or Little Red Riding Hood and the wolf. It’s very seductive."
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Steve, the new music is awesome. Why the title Inviolate?
Steve Vai: That’s a word I discovered some time ago, and I really like it. It means basically free from harm, completely secure. The way that I used that word is analogous to the human spirit and its creative nature.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Is there a musical theme that runs through the songs?
Steve Vai: The musical theme that runs through is not necessarily a theme but a thread, and that thread is my melodic sensibilities. On this record and every record, although I’m known as a shredder guitar player, melody is of vital importance. I want it all. I want to be able to shred effortlessly, elegantly, mellifluously, but it’s got to be melodic or else it’s just work. So that’s what runs through it. That’s the thread that runs through my musical sensibilities. I guess that’s the case for every artist, really.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Why is one of the recordings named “Little Pretty”?
Steve Vai: “Little Pretty” started out as this riff and chord changes I started fooling around with that created a mind of their own. Chords can create a mental atmosphere, an emotional mental atmosphere. For some reason, that song had an interesting, funky darkness to it. It was originally called “The Red Flower” because that was just what I named the two bars of snippet that I recorded on my iPhone when this idea came up. But then, it took on a mind of its own, and I started recognizing things about the song.
Then it started to sound like the melody was saying “Little Pretty,” and I was associating that with Dorothy and the witch or Little Red Riding Hood and the wolf. It’s very seductive. There’s something seductive but intriguing. This was all in the mind of me, the musician, so you’re allowed to go there. Then I started phrasing the words “little pretty” into the melody a lot, so you can hear it quite often through the whole piece. That’s basically how it came about.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Is your approach always the same before you begin a solo record?
Steve Vai: I set out to take music that I had recorded or written way back in the 80s and bring it to life. In Inviolate, I set out to record a record that was very heavy on melody and very focused on guitar techniques that I hadn’t really applied before. So it was a wonderful experience, and it was very challenging. There are some things on this record that are more challenging than anything I’ve ever attempted before. The thing that’s similar is the desire to be creative, the desire to manifest music based on my creative intentions. That’s the same for me, I think, as anybody, and that’s been there since day one. But the projects differ. So when you approach a project on the surface level, there’s all sorts of preproduction. The preproduction for a particular project will change based on the project.
If I’m doing an orchestra project, the preproduction is completely different than if I’m trying to navigate the logistics of having to put a band together, rehearsing and going on tour. Another realm of preparing is physically. There are various things I need to focus on physically like my body because once you get on stage and start performing, you discover muscles you didn’t know you had, and you need to be in good shape. So I have a whole workout regime before I go on tour and also watch what I eat. Then you’ve got to get your hands together. You’ve got to get your fingers in shape and be able to everything. So there’s a lot of various ways that you go into preparing for any kind of a project or tour.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Speaking of your body, you had shoulder surgery over a year ago. It doesn’t look that difficult for you to do, but I’m thinking it’s difficult for the rest of us to play the guitar with one hand (laughs). I’m referring to, of course, the video of the song “Knappsack.”
Steve Vai: Well, you know, I’ll tell you what, Melissa. I’ll let you in on a secret. The technique for me was not so difficult because a lot of guitar players use legato where you pull off notes and stuff, you don’t pick every note, and you hammer notes. You don’t have to pick it. You just slam your finger on the fret, and it makes the sound. So there are a lot of guitar players that have that kind of style.
My style is legato, so when it came time to playing with one hand, it wasn’t such a mystery for me. The thing that was difficult was that the song is relentless. It doesn’t let up. It’s fierce, and it is death defying on my fingers to do it that long and that intensely. So that’s the challenge. But if you’re not a legato-style shredding guitar player, and you see something like that, you’re just like, “Oh, my God! What is he doing? That’s impossible.” (laughs)
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Add to it the fact that you were wearing a Knappsack (laughs).
Steve Vai: Well, the doctor that did the surgery’s name is Dr. Knapp, and he’s developed this special sling for this kind of surgery. He called it the “Knapp.” So I named the song “Knappsack” after my doctor (laughs). What I was wearing in the video on my arm was a Knappsack.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: You also had finger surgery in 2021. Have both your finger and shoulder completely healed?
Steve Vai: I got the surgery on my shoulder and my finger over a year ago. It was weird. The finger developed trigger finger, and that’s because I was playing, and I was doing something with my thumb that I probably shouldn’t have been doing for a long time. It felt like I sprained it, but then a month later, it started triggering. It’s the oddest thing. I could still play, but then it just froze, and I couldn’t play. So I had to get that fixed.
With my shoulder, I really couldn’t strum or anything. I had the surgeries around the same time. They were a week or so apart. The finger surgery’s very conventional, very easy, and so was the shoulder. They both healed. With my finger, I was playing the guitar without any problem two days after the surgery. My shoulder was another story. It took about four weeks before I could start playing. That healed, but I tore another tendon in my shoulder, and I’ve got to get another surgery.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Thus, the rescheduling of the tour this year. How did you get the idea for a new guitar called the Hydra, and what exactly is it?
Steve Vai: Probably about five years ago, I was watching a Mad Max movie, and there was this one scene where the girl was driving through the desert. There’s this guy strapped to the front of the truck, and he’s playing this wild looking guitar. As soon as I saw that guitar, the idea came to me to build a three-neck guitar that has a steampunk motif. I took the idea to Ibanez, and they did a rendering of the Hydra. I couldn’t believe it when I saw the rendering. I thought, “Are you going to build that?” (laughs) They’re like, “Yes. We’re going to build it.”
We went back and forth on the design for about three years as they were building it, and then finally the Hydra arrived at the house. I opened the case and just couldn’t believe it. It was both awesome and intimidating because I knew I had to compose a piece of music with it that could stand on its own as a piece of music. That was my goal to write a piece of music on the Hydra where the only instrument is the Hydra. When you listen to the song “Teeth of the Hydra,” all of the bass guitars, the seven and 12 strings and the harp strings are all performed on the Hydra. So it’s kind of like juggling chainsaws.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: When did you decide to become a professional musician?
Steve Vai: I don’t ever recall making a decision to be a musician because if there was ever a point where I had to make a decision that would’ve meant I had a choice, and I never felt like I had to make a choice. It was always something I just did, and one thing led to another. It all started for me when I was either four or five years old. I walked up to a piano, and I hit a note. I noticed to the right, they go higher, and to the left, they go lower. So I recognized at that moment how music was basically constructed. Like, if I heard music, I’d say, “Oh, yeah. That must exist here on the staff. Those notes are up there because they’re higher, and these are lower. Oh, that’s what chords are.”
Then also, at the same time, I had the realization that the creative construction of music is infinite and that you can do anything you want. It was almost as if I knew all this, and all of a sudden, it was like somebody tapped me on the shoulder and said, “Oh, by the way, you’re a musician.” Musicians are the ones that have those kinds of insights, so I never thought anything about it, of course, and I never looked to the future. Even when I started playing the guitar, I had quiet fantasies, but I never put any real faith in them as something that I had to have because it all seemed too impossible. What I did have was the guitar in that moment, and when I had the guitar, that was living life in that moment as opposed to projecting some kind of future goal fantasy.
All my goals are very short. They’re very close in time. For instance, my goal at any particular time might be to be able to play this particular riff or be able to play this ir to write a song like this. Trying to determine that that song is going to make you rich and famous, and everybody will know how great you are, seems like a form of insanity to me because you don’t know any of that stuff. How many times have people put all their cards into a song or a band or a career because of some future fantasy that doesn’t work out? That’s a waste. If you’re enjoying the moment, you’re living life right there. Does that make sense?
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Absolutely.
Steve Vai: So I never projected into the future. Of course, when opportunities came, I was like, “Yeah. That feels good. I’m doing to do that.”
Smashing Interviews Magazine: You’ve said that when you were younger, you were under the impression that if you became famous, you would go insane. Is that really true?
Steve Vai: That was the truth! It wreaked serious havoc on my psyche at one point in my life, too. It’s funny because you know when you’re young, adults say things, and you take them literally. I was about six years old, and I remember my aunt said, “People who become famous go insane.” So of course that meant, “Okay. Good. Now I know what I don’t want.” (laughs) I didn’t want to go insane. But once I started to get out there, the fictitious story already had taken root, you understand? So I started to question myself. There was that fear of going insane. That’s not a happy thought, you know. I realized that it was complete and utter nonsense. Eventually, I realized that. But when I was young, it was definitely cause for some mental chaos.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Were you ever interested in being a frontman in a band?
Steve Vai: No. I like singing, and I like my voice, but I’ve toured with enough singers to know how difficult it is. I don’t sing properly, so I blow my voice out. I just really never felt compelled to do that. I do sing at my shows, but it’s a couple of songs. If my voice isn’t up to it that night, I just don’t do it. Another thing, when you’re in a band with singers, most of the time you can’t do more than two shows in a row because the singer has to rest his voice. I go out and do 17 shows in a row without a day off because I like that. You can’t do that when you’re a singer.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: How would you describe your time with Frank Zappa, Steve?
Steve Vai: I started working for him when I was 18 transcribing music. Then when I was 20, I moved to California, auditioned for his band, joined, toured and recorded with him for three years. I was very impressionable. I was very young, if you can imagine the naivety and innocence of an 18-year-old in a Frank Zappa world. But I was also a sponge. I watched Frank. I watched the way he did his business. I watched the way he dealt with people. I watched the way he expressed his creative freedom. These were very impressionable for me. Frank was a free thinker.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: I read that after Steve Stevens left David Lee Roth, Bily Sheehan suggested you. He said that you were perfect because the “Zappa humor mentality” was really necessary.
Steve Vai: (laughs) Yeah. Well, if you think of Dave Roth, and you think of some of the funny and campy things he’s done like “California Girls,” he’s got an interesting, comical stripe in him. So did Frank Zappa. It’s not very often you see that in music where people bring their humor into it. You do see it. There are band that do it. But Dave did it, and Frank did it. So I think that’s maybe what Billy was referring to.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: And you did it, too?
Steve Vai: Oh, yeah. If you listen to my music, there’s all that quirky, funny little nonsense, munchkin voices, people talking and saying funny things. I just always kind of liked that. But for Inviolate, there’s none of that.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Do you enjoy doing that while you are performing live?
Steve Vai: I love the idea of performing and being a performer. One of the biggest influences of my life was when I was very, very young, and my parents had West Side Story. I used to watch that movie and listen to the music and say, “That’s what I want to do.” I wanted to do it because it had drama, theater, incredible melody, incredible composition, and it was badass. That was just something I felt like I wanted to do.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Is the supergroup Generation Axe still active?
Steve Vai: Yeah. Generation Axe is the kind of thing that when we can get our schedules together, we do it. That’s the biggest challenge because everybody’s a solo artist or they’re with big bands. One of the things I notice is the more we do it, the more we make it a priority because it’s such a great gig. It’s really easy. You go out there, and you don’t even have to do a full set. We’re just laughing most of the time. If anybody’s in a bad mood, that’s fine. We don’t take it personally.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: All over the web, I see questions and polls that ask, “Who’s the better guitar player, Steve Vai or Yngwie Malmsteen?”
Steve Vai: (laughs) For touch technique, that would be Yngwie.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Yngwie Malmsteen has a reputation in some musical circles about being temperamental or an egomaniac. How would you describe his personality?
Steve Vai: I’ve known Yngwie for about 30 years. We’ve always gotten along fine. I married a woman who’s half Swedish. One of the things I recognized about Swedish people, especially when I was going there, is that they’re not like Americans. They speak their minds but not to insult you. They are just practical thinking people, and they just tell you like it is. That’s how they function, and there’s nothing personal in it.
To that degree, I think when Yngwie first came here, he spoke his mind because it was part of his culture but also he was intensely confident in what he was doing. He knew that the buck stopped with him. So he got a reputation for being arrogant. But I can tell you, I know Yngwie. I’ve toured with him many times. We’re very good friends. He’s a monolith of a musician. He is unique. He is one of those bringers of intensity and passion into his work. He’s completely confident in what he does, and he created a unique style and sound which can’t be replicated like the way he does it. He’s just unique and powerful, and he’s always stuck to his guns. He’s never slowed down.
He loves what he does, and he’s a total professional in that he’s always on time if not early, and if he makes a request, you better deliver. You better deliver because he will deliver. When you can navigate that kind of a protocol, you get along great, and we got along great. You see, with Generation Axe, when you have those kinds of guys on tour, it’s either going to be a complete absolute disaster or it’s going to be a lovefest. For me, it was the latter because everybody’s confident in what they do, and everybody knows everybody else is crazy. They let them be crazy, and it doesn’t disturb them. It turns into laughs, and it’s great.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Laughs instead of any kind of competition?
Steve Vai: We force each other to compete against ourselves. When I’m on a stage with Nuno or Zakk or Tosin or Yngwie or any of these great guitar players, if I were going to compete with them, I would try to be better than they are at what they’re doing, which is impossible. It’s insane. So when you’re around these kinds of giants, they inspire you to be the best you can be. You push your own boundaries because you can’t push their boundaries.
Are you going to play faster than Yngwie? That’s not going to happen. Are you going to play more melodic than Satriani or with more intensity and stamina than Zakk? Nope. I’m not even going to try. I’m just going to be so Vai that I become a great ingredient.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Being so Vai means being a rock star with no drug or alcohol issues and being married for many years to the same person. I don’t even think you engage in social media wars. I believe you may be outside the norm as far as rock stars go, so how did you avoid all the pitfalls?
Steve Vai: People say that, but a lot of the rock stars I know are teetotalers. But, yeah, what was of prime importance for me was a good idea, an encouraging, enthusiastic great idea. That always seemed to push my button more than drugs or that kind of thing. I’m kind of prudish when it comes to sex and stuff. I’ve been with the same woman for 41 years. I like that. I’ve been monogamous, and it works for me. I’m not saying that if you have multiple partners, and you mess around, there’s nothing wrong with that. I think it’s an opportunity to invite a lot of complexity into your life.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Have you ever worked with Ozzy?
Steve Vai: Ozzy and I spent three months in the studio once writing music. It was fantastic! Oh, my God. He is something else. He’s one of the funniest, most interesting guys to hang around with. You just don’t know what’s going to come out of his mouth. Most of the time, he’s telling extraordinary stories that are quite unbelievable.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: When you watch Ozzy on talk shows, he seems reserved, sometimes appearing confused, but his stage persona is totally different.
Steve Vai: He’s a performer from head to foot. I hear that occasionally. People see him on TV and say, “What? Is he stoned? Is he on drugs? Is there something wrong?” From my experience of being with Ozzy, he was totally sober the whole time, but he was Ozzy. There’s a lot going on in that head. To some people, it may look as though he doesn’t know what’s happening or that he’s in a state of confusement. But trust me, that ain’t the case. Ozzy knows what he wants. When you’re writing music with him, he knows what works for him and what doesn’t. How could he have been that successful for so long if he didn’t?
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Very true. David Lee Roth has cancelled his Las Vegas shows and says he’s done. Have you ever thought about retiring?
Steve Vai: No. It’s kind of like a fantasy in the background, the idea of waking up in the morning, feeding the animals, going for a walk, hanging out with my wife, not doing anything but traveling. It’s kind of a background fantasy, but I always think that I do enough of that, and the process of writing music and composing is never-ending. I met Elliott Carter, one of the greatest modernist composers in history, when he was 102 years old. He showed me a score he was working on at that time for a full orchestra. So no, I don’t think I’ll ever be retiring.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: What has been the highlight of your career thus far?
Steve Vai: Getting a compelling idea to do something, doing it, then listening to it back and have it come out better than you could have possibly expected. That’s the payoff. That’s an authentic payoff.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Any last words on Inviolate, Steve?
Steve Vai: I think that even if you’re not a Steve Vai fan, you might get a kick out of some of the stuff on the record because there’s a lot of melody. Melody is of prime importance to me. I’m really looking forward to playing it. I constructed this record so I could go out and play it for people. The shows are always fun and uplifting because I love being a performer. I see myself as a service provider.
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