Steve Vai Discusses New Album ‘The Story of Light’ + Working With David Lee Roth
The arrival of a new Steve Vai album is almost like the beginning of a new “choose your own adventure” type sequence, because really, you never know what you’re going to get until you hit the play button.
Vai’s newest solo release ‘The Story of Light’ is the second album of a three-disc conceptual piece which began with 2005’s ‘Real Illusions: Reflections.’ It follows the journey of a man driven mad by grief, intertwining tragedy, revelation, enlightenment and redemption. At the midway point with ‘The Story of Light,’ Vai hints that the third and final chapter will unravel the mysteries that have been created by the first two albums.
But, as he explains in our interview, he doesn’t want for the music to get lost in the storytelling, so he has found a middle ground that keeps the music in the forefront for the casual listener with plans to expand and further flesh out the concept for those who are interested once the trilogy is completed.
We dug into ‘The Story of Light’ and also got Steve’s thoughts on the current state of the music business, plus his takeaway from working with one of rock and roll’s greatest characters, David Lee Roth.
With this being the second album in a planned three album arc, it’s probably safe to say that you’re one of the good guys who still believes in the idea of making albums. When the concept first started taking shape in your mind, what were the factors that really mapped it out as something that would be a three album stretch?
Well, you know, one of the great things about being an artist and making music is that there are no real rules. You can make stuff up and then just do it. The whole concept is like a playground for my imagination, but I want to make sure that when the music comes out, it’s not something that’s so heady that people who aren’t interested in following any kind of a story - they’re not going to get bogged down, because it’s still just music. But the concept, it’s a story that I had in mind and I wanted to unfold it over this period of time so that it slowly develops and people who are interested in following the story can follow it.
But it’s very, very vague, what I’m giving out on these records in regards to the story. Those who are interested will get the special package for ‘The Story of Light’ and there’s a whole lot of information in there about the story. But yeah, it was like 'well, do I want to do a concept record?' Concept records are so kind of done, you know? I thought if I was going to do something, how can I throw a spin on it? So that’s when I thought, well chop it up into three records and don’t put it in any order and just give little hints. And then when it’s all done, release a full-blown maybe three- or four-record set that has all of the music from the past, plus all of the glue that puts it together and maybe replace some of the melody songs with vocals and then it’s a real rock ... I hate using the term 'rock opera' [Laughs], but it would be somewhat in that order.
One of the songs that we really dig on this album is ‘The Moon and I’ and that’s a song which has been around for a while. How did it finally find its place on this record?
Well, it originally started as a soundcheck jam in Athens, Greece many years ago. I’ve got this great policy, whenever I come in to do soundcheck, the band is all checked and they’re ready to go and I’ve just got a hot guitar standing on a stand in the middle of the stage and I just walk up, pick it up, don’t know what I’m going to play and I just start playing. Everybody follows and we record it and sometimes it comes out really cool and inspired and sometimes it’s crap, you know? [Laughs]
But I’ve got hundreds of these things and one day in Athens, we were doing a soundcheck and I walked up and I just started playing these chords and I immediately felt a whole song there and I had the vision for the whole song, so I just told the band what to play. We never rehearsed it - we just played it and it happened one time and that was it.
Years later, I had it in the back of my mind that I thought it was pretty cool and then when I listened to it, I thought 'this is really nice.' So I brushed it up and I released it as a VaiTune, which is a series of songs that I release digitally only. But I don’t really do promo on those and they’re really for the hardcore [fans] and they don’t really sell great, but to me it was just such an interesting song and it really worked within the concept. And it takes you to a place that’s just very intimate, so I thought 'I can’t just let this live on a digital release,' so I put it on the record and I remixed it and the remix is so much better.
You spoke earlier about how when you’re doing a record like this, you want to avoid having something that’s too “heady” from a content standpoint. From a musical standpoint, this album feels like one of the more accessible things you’ve done. Do you ever find yourself working on things, either in pieces or as a whole album, where you go "I need to pull this back some?”
What I like to do is visualize the whole record in a sense. I have certain go-to dimensions, you know?
What I mean by that is I like to have a simple kind of melody song as like the seventh song. I like to have a vocal track that’s really like a ballad and [on this album] that’s like ‘No More Amsterdam.’ I like to have the more involved compositional crazy stuff like ‘Velorum’ and ‘The Story of Light’ and then I like just really stripped down bass drums and guitar and that’s when I get stuff like ‘Sunshine Electric Raindrops’ or ‘Gravity Storm.’ So there’s actually a plan in mind for the pacing and the songs are very diverse, but they’re not necessarily genre-specific.
You can’t really put your finger on a song and say 'well, that’s blues or that’s dubstep something,' you know? So there is a plan for the flow and then once I get into it, I feel it out and then I listen to the track afterwards and I register whether it hit the mark or not. And there’s a lot of songs that didn’t make it to the record that I started to record and I just said 'eh, this isn’t doing it for me' and maybe I’ll address them at some other time.
You mentioned the diversity and we're always curious to hear a Steve Vai album to see where it’s going to go and there always a few surprises guaranteed. ‘Creamsickle Sunset’ is one that made me check the liner notes to see if Adrian Legg had suddenly snuck onto the album. Your guitar on that one just has that kind of tone.
[Laughs] Well that would have been nice, right?
It’s such a really cool vibe and it just has a different tone to it.
Yeah, I don’t think I’ve done anything like that before, with the exception of maybe ‘The Boy from Seattle’ or ‘Sisters’ or something. But I love that sound and I heard that sound in my head. It was easy to build [but] it was hard to play. Because whenever I approach a song, I put up parameters. I say 'okay, what are you going to do here that’s different? How are you going to imagine the guitar? What are you going to do that’s different than anything you did before or maybe anything you’ve heard before?'
I used an Eric Johnson Strat directly into a Bandmaster head, [so] how do you not sound like Stevie Ray Vaughan and stuff like that. With ‘Creamsickle Sunset,’ it was a really glorious track to record, because I had this very simple riff that I used to practice as a kid to learn chords. You know, you play a chord and then you invert it and then you invert it and then you invert it. But when you get older, you learn how to make things sound like music and not exercise. So I played this simple little E triad in the version and I said 'this really sounds sweet' and then I resolved it and then the whole picture of the song came.
The goal with that track was to have the guitar kind of stand on its own on a silver platter and make every single note its own little identity. Even when they’re in chords and the way you pluck the strings or strum them or where you pluck them - all of those change the sound and the tone and there was a lot of experimenting in that. But ultimately....do you know what a Creamsicle is?
It’s like an orange sherbert and cream.
Yes! And when you taste them, you’re nine years old again and you’re chasing after the Good Humor truck or whatever. Have you ever seen a sunset in Hawaii?
Unfortunately, no. It's on the bucket list.
Well, it’s unlike any other place in the world. I don’t know, maybe it’s because it’s in the South Pacific, but the sky has these streaks of orange and cream and with the blue backdrop, it looks like a Creamsicle and I figured if I could taste that sunset, I bet it would taste like a Creamsicle. And then I thought, what would that sunset sound like if I was sitting on a beach in Hawaii? Those are the kind of esoteric parameters that I put up to create the song. You know, there’s all of technical stuff and there’s the theory of 'well, it’s a triad that’s inverting, blah blah blah and here I’m going to go to flat 2 major 7 with a sharp...' there’s all of that, but it’s all very secondary. Capturing the intention is really the important thing.
‘John the Revelator’ is another cool track and it features Beverly McClellan from ‘The Voice.’ There are a lot of different elements that make up that track. How did you build that one up and how did you connect with Beverly?
Well, I am a big fan of this box set of early American recordings. It’s called ‘Anthology of American Folk Music’ and on it is these extremely rootsy recordings from early American culture. So you have these reverands, you have these slave songs [about] people working in the fields and they’re some of the earliest recordings in history.
They were archived by this guy Harry Smith and the Smithsonian released the box and I just adore it. I never go anyplace without it and it’s been about 15 years now. There’s one track on there called ‘John the Revelator’ by Blind Willie Johnson and it just captivated me. As soon as I heard sing it, I said 'I’ve got to put some heavy guitars on this and make this a ballbuster.' So I heard the whole song in my head, just by hearing him perform it.
I licensed a snippet of him singing it and I built the track around it. Then I was perusing the internet and I found this version of it, because there’s a lot of people who do that song. But there’s this version by this high school choir in the Midwest and it’s this tremendous vocal arrangement. I spoke to the woman who ran the choir and she sent me a cassette and said 'yeah, you can use it if you want.' So I cut it up and built the whole second half of the song, which is the book of the seven seals.
But the recording was not very good, so I hired 10 of Hollywood’s best singers and they came in and sight-sang this thing and then I triple-tracked them. So you get this really interesting contrast between the first part and the second part. Then I needed somebody to sing ‘John the Revelator’ and I was going to sing it, but my voice, I knew that it wasn’t going to cut it. I needed something really powerful and I can’t sing in that range.
I knew that the right answer was going to come and I was hosting this event for the [Grammy] Academy with Sharon Osbourne and there was all of these various performers. I went out to the audience to check it out and Beverly took to the stage and I was absolutely floored. I said 'there’s my singer for ‘John the Revelator’' and what an amazing person, besides the talent. She’s so colorful and there’s something really rootsy about her. She did such a great job, I invited her to come out and open the tour. So she’ll be opening the shows and coming out and singing ‘John the Revelator’ with us.
The song you did with Aimee Mann is another one that I think goes some different places than perhaps fans of Aimee’s music and your music might expect. It has a really interesting sound.
Yeah, thanks - I really enjoyed the way that one came out. It was a riff that I had and there was a concept within the story that I wanted the lyrics to portray and I wanted to have somebody to sing it with. I’d known Aimee since college and she actually lived a couple of doors down from me in an awful apartment building in Boston and my girlfriend at the time, who’s now my wife, was really good friends with her.
Through the years, [my wife] Pia would always be buying Aimee’s music, so I was exposed to everything and always loved what she did and there’s just something so special about her singing. It’s very vulnerable but confident and her lyrics are like poetry, you know? So Pia said 'why don’t you call Aimee and see if she’d be interested,' so I did and she was and it was so much fun. She wrote all of the lyrics and I had her in the studio and I’m recording her and I’m thinking 'oh my gosh, it really sounds like her - it’s her!' [Laughs] I guess maybe I should do a record with female co-singers, huh?
It’s an idea! I think what is important is that sometimes you can do an album that has guest appearances which ultimately detract from or break up the overall experience and that doesn’t happen here. Everything works well in context with the rest of everything else.
Well thanks, I’m glad you feel that way.
Your interest in orchestration really comes through. We can hear it in the compositional makeup of the way some of the songs are stacked on this album. Process-wise, are there similarities for you in the way the various types of musical composition that you enjoy come together in your head?
Oh absolutely - that’s where the real playground is, you know, in your head. When I’m thinking of a song, I don’t put up any parameters. I don’t think 'well, how can I do that or how can I do that.' I love orchestration and I was writing music before I was even playing the guitar and I’ve written several symphonies. So there is a particular compositional brain muscle that I have that rears its head now and then.
When I’m approaching a rock song, there’s certain compositional tools that you use for building harmonies, leading melodies and stuff like that. But the same thing holds true when you’re composing for an orchestra. Except with an orchestra, you have a tremendous amount more options. Because there’s so many different textures and an orchestra is organic. There are instruments that people are hitting and strumming and blowing into and bowing and there’s no amplifiers or anything, so it creates a whole different aura. But the process of composing I believe is the same for everybody. It starts as an inspiration someplace and then you work to get it out.
You started Favored Nations at a time that by design, you were already serving up music that filled a certain niche. Now, with where things are at, there are a lot of artists who are doing things DIY on their own, which is a bit of a flashback to guys like Frank Zappa, who you worked with of course, who in 1980 was selling more music via mail order on his own than he was through the traditional channels of record stores and that kind of thing. Now all of these years later, it’s come back around to where DIY is once again a very popular thing. How do you see things at this point?
The music business is evolving and the way that we create music, the way that we record it, the way that we package it and the way we distribute it and the way that we listen to it is continually changing and it will continue to change. The two things I think that are always going to be needed are 1) the musician who makes the music and 2) somebody who knows how to sell it. So for me, I’ve always been comfortable as an independent artist.
I started my first record company for ‘Flex-Able’ which was 30 years ago and it was unbelievably successful for me. The times have changed and you have to look around the corner and see what’s coming and work with it. If you can learn how to be friendly to the changes and know that within any change, there’s potential for success, then those things that are off your radar will come into your radar. I’ve been really fortunate with that. But I do prefer to be an independent musician and control everything myself. It is a world where it is much easier now to be an independent musician. You just have to want that.
The ‘Eat ‘Em and Smile’ lineup of the David Lee Roth band is for a lot of people, we think, one of the greatest powerhouse band lineups of all time. How would you summarize the start, middle and end of that experience?
Well, I would tend to agree with those people.
It was incredible.
It was a whirlwind for me. No gig in the world could have been cooler at the time. It fell right into my lap and I grabbed it and ran as fast and as hard as I could and it was glorious. I look back and I just thank my lucky stars. Just being with Billy and Greg and Dave....you know, Dave was amazing. He’s an intense guy and I learned so much from him and to this day, there’s things that I do, that I learned from Dave. He was the bonafide quintessential rock star.
What do you think the key thing was that you took away from that experience, from a learning perspective?
Well, Dave was very disciplined and he prepared very carefully and thoroughly. Even though the image is relatively haphazard rock star, that’s not what Dave really is. He’s really intense and he knows what he wants and he knows how to get it and he doesn’t stop until he does. And I was just a big part of that. I witnessed it and it got in my bloodstream.