There’s a Fire in the House: A Conversation with Steve Vai (Part 2 of 4)

Continued from Part One

How important is it to you that the listener understand the thoughts and feelings that you put into a song?

It’s not that it’s important or not important. It’s either going to happen or it’s not going to happen. And it does happen for those who are drawn to it. And it doesn’t happen for those that are not drawn to it.

I just don’t get the Rolling Stones. I like them; they’re okay. There are songs I like, but the whole pop cultural phenomenon of what they are kind of eludes me. And I don’t collect paraphernalia from Elvis. But those people aren’t collecting for me.

But then I go on tour and I meet people who have my name and face tatooed on them! So there’s something for everybody. And when you align yourself with your true creative instincts, you’re imbuing your creations with your personality and your dynamic, creative intention. And it draws the appropriate people for you, whoever that is.

There’s this illusion that many musicians have: they have to compromise their creative instincts in order to be accepted, and play something else that the world tells them, “No, this is popular, you need to do this, or, okay, you can do that. But if you don’t add this, then it’s not going to get on the radio, whatever it is.” These things are illusions, because you’re not going to be authentic at things that you force. You will be very authentic in your natural state of creative expression.

And that’s the music that people make that is infused with energy. The effectiveness of a piece of music on another person is based on the intention and the authenticity of the creator of it. So how important is it that other people hear your music? You see how the word “important” doesn’t really fit. Yeah, they either will or they won’t.

People ask me, “Should I know music theory?” And it’s not that you should or you shouldn’t. You either will or you won’t. And that’s based on the level of interest you have in it. Having said that, I always say, “Yeah, but you should learn the basics at least.”

The first time I saw you onstage was in October 1981 when you were Frank Zappa’s “stunt guitarist.” What was the biggest takeaway from playing with him?

Well, you’ve got to have your shit together. You’ve got to have good ears. You have to have an adventurous heart. You have to have a good sense of humor. All those things have to be natural to you if you’re going to work with Frank.

Frank was brilliant at recognizing your potential better than you could, and then seducing it from you and creating a format [in which] you could express it in an exaggerated way. And then he would use that particular skill that you had as a color in his palette at that time. He would take a snapshot of it, and then move on. He was a true, incredibly powerful creator, and he knew how to “svengali” everybody into place.

So I watched that. And the greatest thing that I extracted from that was: if you want to do something, you just do it. You don’t wait for somebody to do it for you. And you don’t make excuses. And that was a very powerful lesson, because when I left Frank, it was like, “What do I want to do? Okay, I’m just going to do it: I’m going to make a record, I’m going to release it and I’m going to own and control it and I’m going to make a lot of money. That’s what I’m going to do.” Because working with Frank, you got that zap of momentum.

The story of you cold-calling Frank Zappa when you were a teenager, having transcribed his incredibly difficult “The Black Page” is legend. And then of course he hired you. What were some of the most important lessons that you took away from your experience as Zappa’s transcriptionist?

Well, as a transcriptionist, it was an incredible opportunity to widen my ears. What I took away most from being a transcriptionist was better ear identification and also a very intense and in-depth focus on polyrhythmic subdivision. Because if you look at the Frank Zappa guitar book that I wrote, there’s polyrhythmic music notation in there that is pretty advanced. It’s the most advanced I’ve ever seen anywhere. It’s just because I was fascinated with it and I got forensic with it, almost neurotic.

And it was just so much fun. It was such a creative process to hear it and to realize these rhythmic spaces, how they’re being filled. Because the way Frank played, man, it was so visceral and all over the place. His inner rhythm was superimposed on the main rhythm, and then he had superimpositions on top of that. And this was all done unconsciously by Frank. He just played. So when it came time to break it down, it was quite a fun mental gymnastics. So that’s what I got out of that.

In addition to your own body of work, you’ve done a lot of work for and with other artists. In those situations – whether it’s David Lee Roth or Ozzy or whomever – is it challenging to set aside your own musical visions and focus on realizing their vision?

I realize my vision within theirs. When I’m doing my own solo work, the goal to create a catalog of undiluted music, for better or for worse. But whenever I receive something that somebody wants me to play on, or I’m in another situation, first I have to screen it with my intuition, and I just listen. Or I look at the situation.

Frank Zappa says, “You’re invited to an audition,” or Dave Lee Roth asks, “Do you want to play in my band?” Or Polyphia, or anything, right? There’s always things coming in. I do what most people do in their life. They look at something, they feel, if it’s something that resonates with them. And I always ask myself, “Can you fit in here? What you do and what your freedom as a player, is that going to work in this situation?” Because I’m not going to not be free.

I’m not a studio musician that comes in and [is told] “Here’s the parts, and it goes like this.” Some people are really good at it. I don’t do that anymore. There’s no reason for me; I’m not interested in that. I’m not even great at it, but I am good at kind of looking at a situation and thinking, “How can I appropriately contribute?” And if the answer is, “Yeah, you could do that, you got this,” then those that are asking me usually know, “With this guy Steve Vai, we don’t know what we’re going to get, but something’s going to come out of it.”

So I’m completely removing myself from my solo music, so to speak. But I’m applying my freedoms within their framework, and that works really nice a lot of times.

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