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

Continued from Part Three

What led to the release of your latest album Vai/Gash some 30 years after you made the record?

It was 1990, and I was really into the southern California biker culture; I loved bikes ever since I was a kid. And when I finally had some money, I was able to buy a Harley, and I would ride a lot. And my friend John Sombretto, Johnny “Gash” Sombretto had moved out from New York. He was this wild, absolutely crazy, lovable, unpredictable, charismatic person; I can’t explain him. I could talk about all the great rock star singers I’ve worked with, and I can explain them. To explain Johnny, it’s impossible.

He had an accident when he was 21. He was climbing this electrical tower and the electricity arced, and he ended up with third degree burns over 60% of his body and almost died. He was all gashed up, and that’s how he got the nickname.

He moved out here, and were just best of friends. We all had our girlfriends and we’d go on these amazing motorcycle rides. And I wanted to have some music to listen to that sounded like the way I felt when were riding. And it was almost like something hit me over the head and said, “Go in the studio right now, and record.” So I did. I laid a click track down and I just started the stream of consciousness. And the seed that I planted was, “This is going to be really simple, straight ahead, very melodic, beautiful, high energy, empowering freedom feeling biker hard rock. Simple, wonderful music.”

And I had those tools because I was a rock and roll guy from the ‘70s. So I blasted this record out in about a week. But I needed somebody to sing it. I tried singing it, and that was a disaster because I don’t have a rock and roll voice. And I would listen to Gash and I’d hear him just yell sometimes or just like a Led Zeppelin “Oh, yeah!” He could croon. He would do Frank Sinatra stuff, and he sounded great. But I threw him in the studio and I said, “Sing this.”

And I was like, “What the fuck, man?” And he just took to it. And that happened. I mean, he was so innocent; he didn’t know how to be a rock star. So he was completely himself. And himself was such an extraordinary, interesting guy. You’d have to know him, but you’d love him so much. He was so unpredictable, crazy. The things he would say were shocking but endearing. He was a bona fide rock star who never had the opportunity to be one.

I’m an authority on rock star lead singers; I have so much experience with them. And there’s two things at play in that. There’s the actual quality and the intensity of the voice of a rock star singer, and there’s the DNA of a rock star. It’s the ability to captivate an audience and keep them engaged and smother them with your ego; there’s a certain DNA in a lead singer like that.

And sometimes there are these singers that have one. They got all the rock star DNA, the voice. It’s not maybe not a virtuoso voice, but it’s not necessary, right? And then you got people who have incredible voices, but they lack the knowledge of who they all are. So it’s rare that those two worlds come together. David Coverdale is abundant in both; he’s complete rock star DNA. He knows how to command an audience, and he’s an unbelievable singer. Gash was that, too.

So I recorded these songs, and they served their purpose. We were jamming them on the freeway, on the bikes. And I loved it, and it was so personal to me and so sacred. I didn’t really consider releasing it, but I wanted to finish it because I only did eight songs. I was in the middle of starting Sex and Religion, so I had to complete that. And then I was going to go back and finish the Gash record, but he tragically was killed. And when that happened, I just took the whole project and threw it on the shelf. I didn’t consider releasing it back then because it just was too sacred to me.

I didn’t want to throw it to the wolves because right at that time, grunge had emerged. And if I would have released a record like that, it was so ‘70s-’80s sounding, it just would have been buried and harshly criticized. I did love the idea of potentially doing something with it. But he wasn’t there.

It just felt so good whenever I listened to it. And that usually means there’s probably a few other people that would like it, too. So finally push came to shove, and years later, which was just last year, I decided, “Okay, that’s it, I’m releasing this thing.” Because I always felt, “Maybe I can muster another song from someplace, like an instrumental. And I’m going to fix this guitar part here and fix this vocal here and everything. And then I want to mix it.” And I just never did it because there was always something else going on. Finally just said, “Ok, just go get the tapes, bake them and send them to Mike Frazier and don’t do anything new.” So I did that and he mixed it and then I sent it to Bernie Grundman and he mastered it.

And it is exactly the way it was when I left. It was recorded analog, it was mixed analog, and then it was mastered analog by Bernie Grundman, who is the best cutter in the world. He even came out of quasi-retirement for that one. I like doing the best I can for something like that.

I liked it, and I thought a few other people would like it. But there’s a lot of people who love it. And the reviews I read of it – and the response from some of the fans on tour and a lot of the journalists, especially the European ones – was that they really liked it. So that was a nice surprise.