FRANK ZAPPA, ALCATRAZZ, DAVID LEE ROTH, WHITESNAKE... STEVE VAI has cultivated a bunch of cool band associations to be sure, but to his credit, he’s more so carved out a career as one of the most famous solo guitar album and performance guys. And more to his credit, his vast catalogue is one with its own exotic sound, arguably a language or world or infinite universe, with peeps and skronks ranging from a sort of spiritual lilt to a playful heavy metal crunch and everything in-between.
The Story Of Light perpetuates Steve’s conceptual search for meaning embarked upon within focus on his last album, Real Illusions: Reflection, issued fully seven years ago. And like everything in Steve’s intellectually challenging body of work, well, a river runs through it...
“You know, as an artist, when you go through life, as with anybody, you have experiences and whatnot that can change your perspective,” explains Vai, asked what the mission was this record ‘round. “And that has a big effect on the outcome of anything you create. So really, I take the same approach when I make music as I always have. I try to come up with an exciting idea that becomes so compelling that I kinda have to bring it into reality, and that’s basically the face value. With this record I wanted to create something that had a little more depth to it, which started with my last record, Real Illusions. When I set out to do that record, I had a story, a very interesting kind of esoteric story, that I wanted to express through the music, plus bits and pieces from liner notes and whatever, and sort of have the songs be depictions of characters and events through the story. But I didn’t want to do it in one chunk. The idea was to release three records, each being sort of an instalment of songs not in any particular order, but then eventually come around and bring all the songs together in one package and maybe add another record where it’s a narrative. Maybe change things around and create a linear narrative that’s pretty robust.”
The artwork of the two album covers underscores this exotic philosophy as well... “Yeah, I found this artist, Andrea Cobb in this magazine, and I just love her work! There’s something ethereal about it and otherworldly, and I contacted her. I found the original artwork for Real Illusions; it was an existing piece she had done. I had contacted her and she was really exciting to work with. So I figured I wanted to create a visual attitude for the whole project. So I stuck with her for it.”
Although the concept of humour isn’t really part of this record, it’s something Steve has addressed quite a bit in the past. Still, there’s something often funny about what he does with the guitar, particularly as embedded in his melody lines, although also with his use of sheer rhinoceros-like noise.
“Ha! Well it comes in varying degrees and intensities,” ponders Vai. “My first record, ‘Flex-able,’ was all about humour because at the time that I made it, it was a very innocent kind of project in that I recorded tons and tons and tons of stuff that was very influenced by Frank at the time. Also it was really just a little secret that I had with me and my friends, ya know? I would send them a track and say, “Listen to how funny this one is.” So there was a lot of humour in that, and I have tons of stuff sitting on the shelf that’s just really silly stuff. But when I started to make records such as Passion And Warfare, some of the subject matter is very intense and there’s not a lot of humour involved in it. But for the most part, you know, I like kind of a light feel; I don’t want to take myself too seriously. So comedy is like a release, I mean, if you’re doing something that resonates with somebody on a comical level. So I inject it here and there.”
And yet within The Story Of Light, there is nonetheless a sort of an oblique, quiet, kind of understated humour. Can one generate humour through nothing more than melody?
“Well yeah, you sure can! I mean, when people laugh or when people create a humorous situation, it can be represented in notes because, if you take this interview we’re doing and you transcribe it, there’s notes, inflections and dynamics to every single phrase. If I was talking to you in a humorous way, I could transcribe it and it would probably come off melodically very humorous. But The Story Of Light, you know, there’s not so much of that going on. It’s a different kind of sentiment.”
But, one wonders, does some of this oddity of melody come from Steve’s roots with the legendary Frank Zappa?
“Well, Frank would write all sorts of stuff, and I was very young when I was working for him and very impressionable. The thing that I got most out of Frank’s work, or from Frank himself, was his independence. You know, when he wanted to write a melody he wrote what he was hearing and it wasn’t based on anything else that was going on at the time that might have been considered vogue or... you know he always was independent in his approach to so many things. You know, his artistry, his business, the way that he treated people, it was very inspiring. So when I started to cultivate my own career, I just figured this is the way you do it. You know, you hear melodies in your head and you just do whatever you feel. But Frank’s melodies, a lot of them were composed. So they’re not just like something you’d sing along and it repeats itself and it repeats itself. They were, you know, compositions that went on and on, and wove in and out of harmonies. It wasn’t something that you’d teach somebody. It’s something they have to be able to read and understand. So, the compositional nature of Frank’s work was very inspiring to me. I don’t think my melodies, you know... my choice of notes are pretty different than Frank’s, but some of the constructions are similar.”
In closing, I just had to ask Steve about his time spent with Diamond DAVID LEE ROTH. Two records fell out of the experience, the second, Skyscraper, quite different from the first, ‘Eat ‘Em And Smile...
“Well, sure, Eat ‘Em And Smile was a very visceral, kind of a raw record, you know? Ted Templeman had a very earthy approach. When we did Skyscraper, it was much more produced. Dave wanted to be a lot more forensic about the sounds and overall production. You’d probably have to ask him, but my take was that he was like any artist: he was trying to expand his universe.”
And there was always that rumour that he was close to covering a KIM MITCHELL song, I believe, ‘Big Best Summer’. “Well yeah, there was times where... I know that for Eat ‘Em And Smile, before I got in the band, he had received a bunch of songs from some guys and some of them were pretty good. We demoed some of them. I can’t really remember what they were. You mentioned Kim Mitchell... that rings a bell; I think he might have submitted some songs. But at the end of the day Dave just chose what he wanted to play.”
And finally, how involved was Dave in the music itself?
”Well, Dave, everything went through his approval and it had to resonate with him. I mean, usually with a lot of the tracks, a musician would bring in a riff or a song. Most of the time it was me, and Dave would... we’d re-shape it in rehearsals . Dave would you know, have a heavy-hand in that because he knows what he wants, and then he would write the lyrics. Sometimes he would pick a song that was an old favourite of his that was you know, an old classic or something, like That’s Life, or something like that. Then he would mold it into shape sort of, with the hands of his band members and the producers... And he was David Lee Roth! (laughs)."