Exclusive Steve Vai Interview – Vai talks technical chops, emotional investment, and naked tracks

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Steve Vai
Photo courtesy Fermetta (Flickr.com)
The definition of virtuoso on electric guitar, Steve Vai has earned the respect of critics, audiences, and fellow musicians worldwide. With a string of Grammy Award nominations and wins tucked under his guitar strap and a knack for assembling top-notch musicians and driving them to exceptional performances, Steve hasn’t rested on his laurels. He continues to explore new musical avenues – including orchestral compositions ("Oil of Smoke" and others), music training (an upcoming course through Berklee music), and the honoring the legacy of landmark artists (Vai is performing in this year’s Jimi Hendrix Tribute Tour).

In this interview, Vai shares his thoughts on recent recordings and tours, and offers his opinion of some of the latest music technologies changing the way that artists compose, record, and collaborate.

How would you describe your DVD/CD release, Where the Wild Things Are? Can you talk a bit about the creation of this album?
I was itching to perform, so instead of jumping right back into the studio to make a new studio record after my last project, I booked a tour of Europe, USA, and South America to satiate the fingers and the ego for a while. I wanted to put a unique band together that could bring a different kind of life to my catalog of diverse musical tracks.

I always like the idea of having a violin player in the band, but during auditions I started to have serious concerns, because I could not find one violin player who could play in tune and melodiously. Many were shrill-sounding metal shredders or classically trained players that sounded wimpy when plugged in.

Then the skies opened up and Alex DePue and Ann Marie Calhoun came into my life: two elite virtuosos who can play challenging music, but also understand the attitude/dynamic of rock music. They have complete control of their instruments and look amazing doing what they do.

When I put a band and a show together, I try to create an entertainment experience that I would like to see if I were sitting in the audience. I like to see great musicianship, but nothing too cerebral or overindulgent; I like to be stimulated with a large dynamic range of emotional intensities. I enjoy when people love their instrument and it shows by their oneness with it.

I like to feel as though I’m part of a family with the audience and the band. I want to walk away feeling good and uplifted and not beat up by somebody’s ego or the things they hate about themselves and the world.

There are basically two elements that go into performing a piece of music, regardless of its level of difficulty. One of them is the technical side of being able to perform the piece on the instrument, and the other is the emotional investment a performer has with the music. I strive to find equilibrium between the two, because I believe that it takes both elements to be an effective performer. Technical ability and emotional investment walk hand in hand. Of course, you have to employ your imagination muscle too.

There’s a very colorful piece on the DVD called "The Murder." It’s more of a performance art piece. At the concert, I wielded the guitar around like a wizard and then in the studio I put all sorts of digital video FX and audio sweetening on it. I saw the whole thing in my head before I stepped on stage. It took many hundreds of man-hours to make it turn out as it did. But hey… what am I here for?

What’s your opinion of online music collaboration platforms, such as Kompoz.com and RiffWorld.com? Is this a healthy development or does it remove the emotional communication and that almost psychic interaction that’s present when musicians are working together in the same room?
I think it’s all good. Musicians will gravitate to the thing that interests them the most. I usually don’t sit in a room with a bunch of people and see what comes up. I’m an independent composer/songwriter. I have sat in a room and conjured up the psychic emotional interaction, but for the most part it’s a private affair.

Some people prefer to be with a group of people and see what comes out. They enjoy that form of discovering songs. Some people may like the idea that online collaboration offers. The emotional communication an artist has with the music varies from artist to artist. It’s the same with the way they create. It will all be there if it’s there in the first place. The medium of discovery won’t matter. If it’s not there, then it will be difficult to find it – whether it’s a group of people sitting in a room, tweeting their music to each other, collaborating online, or sitting in their bedroom musically meandering.

Mobile recording and on-site sound editing on notebook computers are becoming more popular with many performers. Do you see a value in this trend?
It’s obviously up to the user, but anything that can make the creative process move quicker and seamlessly is going to be a boon. Regardless, if you are a musician, artist, number cruncher, et cetera, the creative process can happen very quickly in the imagination, but bringing these ideas into physical reality can be a chore. The quicker and more efficient the production tools, the easier it will be for the creator. Anything that will enable the creative element to become real in the world in a faster, easier way will benefit the artist. The path of least resistance.

As a guitarist, I’m intrigued by your release of "Naked Tracks" (a collection of backing tracks for creative jamming). Have you gotten much feedback from guitarists who have used this approach to extend their abilities? When you were first learning guitar, is there an artist that you would have liked to see release an equivalent to “Naked Tracks”?
The feedback has been very positive. If you have to desire to play to these tracks, then they are very useful. Anything that allows you to focus on your instrument will extend your abilities. I would have loved it if Led Zeppelin made tracks like this. Imagine that!

Given all that you’ve accomplished in your career, where do you plan to focus your creative ambitions in the coming years?
I make conscious efforts to evolve – to enhance my voice on the instrument and extend the depth of my melodic awareness. I enjoy coming up with new ideas for compositions and guitar riffs. Every day is like Christmas.

Story Links:
Steve Vai’s Naked Tracks
Steve Vai’s Little Black Dots guitar tabs
Experience Hendrix 2011 Tribute Tour

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About Lee Purcell

Lee Purcell started out doing technical writing in the heyday of Silicon Valley innovation and ended up in a small town in Vermont, telecommuting, surrounded by 200-year old white pines. More about his technical endeavors can be discovered at lee-purcell.com.

5 thoughts on “Exclusive Steve Vai Interview – Vai talks technical chops, emotional investment, and naked tracks

  1. Via is the man imo and even though I will never have his talent, it’s good to know he is similar to me in the way he works. I enjoy sitting alone creating sounds/songs to jam to and record, even if they aren’t very technical or advanced. I play and record at my own pace and ability, with most folks never hearing the finished product except for maybe my closest friends and family but they are still fun for me to spend my free time messing around with as a hobby.  

  2. The creative process is subjective. Cetainly there are parameters that determine
    a great performance or chaos. When you’re lost in your music, you find out what
    you’ve created after you listen to a recording of it. The musician,especially serious
    musicians are most critical of their own work. What someone thinks is great might
    not please you at all,It’s a blessing and a curse.

    To find serious,creative,and dedicated musicians to work with is not an easy task.
    To be at your best, you have to work with the best. Steve Vai sets his standards
    high,this is a man I could work with. For me playing and creating is second
    nature. Eddie Van Halen said you need to have the tools to work with, then figure
    out how to use them.

    The best way to evolve is to listen to the masters play,take all the things you love
    and create your own sound.

  3. Thanks for the inspiring interview. I particularly enjoyed the part where Steve suggested that
    musicians will tend to gravitate toward the thing that interests them most.

    Coming from an artist of his accomplishments it is enlightening — and can help all of us feel confident
    about the particular approach that works for us.

    I also appreciated his passion for creating an entertaining show that he himself would like to see. That’s service!
    It’s great to get a glimpse into what an artist like Steve Vai thinks about the creative process. Cool 🙂

  4. I found Steve Vai’s comments to be intelligent and visionary. He offers a view
    of musical composition/production that is inclusive and expanding.

    His insights into the technical vs. creative aspects of music making were inspiring.

    Musical virtuosity is useless unless it expresses something beyond “look how good
    I am, now check this out…plenty more where that came from”.

    We are lucky to have Steve out there doing his thing.

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