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Steve at Concord Pavillion

Steve Vai

.......Steve Vai is an established guitar virtuoso with career sales of over 13 million albums, one Grammy win, and four nominations. On The Ultra Zone, his second solo release on Epic, Vai delves deeper into his unique approach to the instrument, a trait that has set him apart from countless other guitarists for over a decade. Vai's consistent musical evolution and collaboratory efforts continue to make fans ask, "What next?" Steve Vai is one of the few artists whose music is embraced and revered in every country around the world. His music and guitar playing transcend trend and politics, with record sales and fans from all corners of the earth to prove it.

INTERVIEW WITH STEVE VAI....10/25/99

Q: So how did the opening night of your new tour go?

A: Last night was the first show and I was stunned. I mean, the audience was wild. It was so good to be back out there again. Really great.

Q: It's great to have you back. So you have been working on this new album "Ultra Zone" for a long time it seems ?

A: Oh yeah. It was actually a pretty long process. It was on and off though. I mean from the time I finished my last record "Fire Garden", I started working on the "Ultra Zone" and there was a lot of things that transpired in that 2½ year period. I had done a l3 month tour for Fire Garden. I did a G-3 album and video, and I produced 2 records for Sony which were called "Merry Axemas", , a Guitar Christmas", and I constructed and completed a 10 CD box set. Then I spent a lot of time with my father who passed away in the middle of it all, and then I ended up completing the "Ultra Zone".

Q: How did you coordinate India music in this the CD?

A: Well I have spent time in India, several years ago. The record has a lot of different cultural overtones, and especially because I like to listen to music from different cultures, but I don't like to get too classical about it. You know, I would never want to incorporate a very classical Indian sounding composition, but I think that when you borrow elements of music from another culture, that music is a representation of that culture. When you think about India, most people see India shrouded in this mystic of spiritualism and if you borrow those scales and ambiences from the music of that culture, you can sort of create those feelings. So, by taking elements of the Indian music and putting them in more of a contemporary rock form, such songs like "The Blood and Tears" or "Silent Within", I can create sort of an atmosphere of that culture.

Q: Like with "Asian Sky"?

A: Yeah, "Asian Sky" is more Japanese.

Q: I understand that to the Japanese, you're really like a god to them. How did this come about?

A: It goes way back. I have been touring Japan for 15 years. It's the kind of market that you have to cultivate. There are certain things that they like. They like good musicianship, they like flashing stuff, they like funny clothes and wild shows and stuff like that. That's some of the things that I try to incorporate into my image and they just embraced me. You know my audience just gets bigger and bigger. This last record, "Ultra Zone" is my biggest selling record so far in Japan. It went gold in a week. Yeah, it's one of the few places that I actually have a career (laughs).

Q: Are you still doing some singing?

A: Yeah, on the new record I sing a couple of songs.

Q: I noticed too, that the Japanese version has a couple of extra tunes.

A: Well, there is an extra song on the Japanese version because the record company is paying - CD's are so expensive. You can buy an import and its cheaper than buying a domestic release. So the Japanese record company likes to have an extra song on there as a bonus track as an incentive for the Japanese audience to buy the domestic version. So you know me, I'm all too eager to please. I contributed a track called "Selfless Love", a song I wrote for my Mother.

Q: One thing I was curious too, I noticed that a lot of your playing from last album to this one, is more intense. Are you experimenting with more special effects on this album?

A: I try to expand the horizon of the instrument by both experimenting with effects and also just by my phrasing and my approach to melody. That's what its all about - its how you effect people with the melodies that you create. Because that's what they remember. Cool sounds will go so far. But to create a historical piece of music that people will fall back on, it has to touch them emotionally and the only way to really do that is through melody, through the atmosphere of the song and experimenting with different sounds will help. But let me ask you, in 40 years from now, are you going to remember "Chemical Brothers", no disrespect, but it's wallpaper. It's exciting wallpaper and I listen to it and get a kick out of it, but trends are fickle.

Q: I intensely listen to a lot of guitar players, and I notice that you play with a lot of style and you play with taste and restraint,

A: Thanks, I just try to approach melody like a conversation. Like, are you going to tell somebody that you like them, or you love them, or you respect them, or you don't like them. You know what I mean. The things you say to people, definitely have an impact on them and I think that the way melodies are constructed have the same impact. I can play pretty fast on an instrument and I can do some pretty dazzling things if I want, but that only goes so far. You know, that's only going to interest people to a certain degree, it only has a certain stimulation. It's like talking real fast about politics or something.

Q: Are you still playing the 7 string guitar?

A: I use it occasionally.

Q: I was wondering what effect did that have? Did you actually have an extra high E string?

A: No, actually put a low string. It's hard to find a high string that won't break. The low string definitely adds girth. I use 9 through 42.

Q: I notice that you have a signature amplifier.

A: Yes. I never really endorsed an amplifier, because I never found one that was just right. I was working with Carvin on this new amp and it just turned out fantastic. It's called the "Legacy". It took a year and a half to fux with it to make it sound like I wanted and we got it and it sort of gives me a new lease on my musical life.

Q: Do you play stacks of Carvins Amps?

A: I don't use a lot of amps. I just use two. Any more is just for show and I'm over that.

Q: You have your own label?

A: Yes "Favored Nations" is a label that I put together with a friend of mine, Ray Shear. He was the owner of Guitar Center. He sold his business 3 years ago and was looking to get into something. It is a very different approach towards a label. I mean as far as the compensation of the artist, if you examine contemporary record deals and past record deals, the artist was always at the lower end of the food chain, and that includes everybody in the food chain from retail to managers, and everything. This is more co-ventures with artists. The label is geared towards creative people. People who really offer something on their instrument, but not you know, inaccessible stuff. Stevie Ray Vaughn would have been great on this label. Frank Zappa would have been great on this label. So that's the kind of thing we are looking at. We have some great releases coming up. Our first release is in January and things are going really smooth.

Q: I see you have your Hand prints on the "Hollywood Rock Walk".

A: That was cool. What that is, is the Hollywood Rock Walk of Fame at Guitar Center is a recognition of musicians who have made substantial contributions in their career. I don't know why they asked me to do it, but there I am along side of all these great people. Me and Joe (Satriani) did it, along with Larry Carlton and Jimmy Vaughn.

Q: What do you think of the state of "Rock n Roll" today?

A: There are elements of it that I really enjoy you know. I like big walls of guitar. I always did. I like music with energy. It definitely has energy. I think there is some inspired stuff and I think there is crap. I think there is just pantomiming near-do-wells, but then again, I hear stuff that I really like. I just think that the message in a lot of the music is anti-social, regressive towards the human race in general, and I think that musicians should be a little more respectful of the opportunity they have to create a message in the world. But that's just my view, which means nothing.

Q: There are elements of truth to that. When I went to cover Woodstock'99 for three days, it was cool in the beginning, then it slowly deteriorated to a mess at the end?

A: What the fuck were they expecting. Music is an extremely powerful force and element. Year after year people are looking more and more to stimulate the audience. And how do you stimulate the audience? You dive into their sexual psyche and their aggressive potential. Once those elements start stirring in a human being, they feel alive. What do you think is going to happen. They are going to act them out. It all starts in the mind. You write songs about fucking, and sex, and lust, and rape, and murder and you know robbing and stealing, and being hurt, what do they think is going to happen. Music becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Q: Your really a master at guitar playing, it's a creative work of art. But we a hear a lot of music come out on the radio with bands that are playing totally out of tune and can't really sing very well too boot, but still manage to sell thousands of albums, what's your take on that?

A: I don't mind if they are out of tune and can't sing, as long as what they are doing is inspired. I've seen that happen. I mean Kurt Cobain used to floor me man. I mean it. I think he was a genius. But then again, there are people who see that and are inspired by it, but they don't have the same wherewithal and they try to the same thing and it is just uninspired. And nothing against those people, it's like saying "ha ha you've got four fingers". I'm not saying anything against them, it just the way it is. It's always been that way. There are trend setters and trend mongers. What I do, I listen to every kind of music. I really like inspired musicians in all different genres. I can listen to classical. I think that "Livin' la Vida Loca" is a great song man(Ricky Martin). But I don't get Brittany Spears. Stuff like that I don't just get it. But it has to be me. She sold 7 million records. I think we have limited time to express ourselves creatively and every step that you take towards a creative statement, needs to be done with the great honor that it is to have that moment. So, I try to use every creative element I have or moment that I have, to do things that I think are stimulating and interesting. Whether the rest of the world thinks so are not, I can't cater to the rest of the world. I want to be able to look back at my music career when I am 60 or 70, if I make it that long, to know that I made the truest most artistic statement that I could at the time. Because if you don't, you missed it and that opportunity isn't there again.

Q: You have a lot of interesting sounds on " Ultra Zone", are you always experimenting?

A: I have been that way since the very beginning. I made a record that I thought was interesting and weird, and whatever, and I said now I have to sell it. I didn't think, well first I have sell the record, and now I have to make it. I catered to my own musical desires and then I set out to sell it. I didn't think I would ever sell any. Nobody was interested naturally, so that didn't stop me though. I printed up the LPs myself and I sold them at gigs, and I called distributors and I had them take l00 copies here and couple 100 here. Now a lot of people do that. I have been very lucky. You know, I have been extremely fortunate. I have had good karma through my whole career. The situations that I was in with people like Zappa, Roth, and White Snake and these big rock bands, then in turn, made these records more accessible.

Q: For someone starting out playing guitar should they have a role model to follow?

A: Well that's good. I think it's important to have a role model of sorts. I'd say keep your tastes varied. Listen to a lot of different people and take elements of the things that they do that you like, but don't try to play like them. I mean I would be thrilled if I saw somebody that had more technique than me, which there are, but somebody that takes what I do on the guitar a few steps further. That would be a real treat. What I'm about isn't all just guitar playing.

Q: Are the demo's submitted by aspiring artists to your label "Favored Nations" need to have similar music like yours to be accepted ?

A: No, they don't have to. I get tapes from all around the world all the time, and most of the guitar players sound like Joe Satriani, or Stevie Ray Vaughn, or Ingvay (??). I'm not looking to that at all. Those people already exist and they are totally inspired and they've done it. I am looking for people who are capable of taking things in a different direction. You don't necessarily have to be a technical wizard to do something unique and creative.

Q: On this album, you took it to another plane. Was it always your objective to be different from the album before?

A: Yes. I try to set up different parameters for each record, because I like variety. I like to listen to my records. When you create something, it's sort like a little snapshot of your life and your psyche at that particular time in your life and I enjoy that. I go back and listen to my first solo record "Flexible" and it's such an innocent approach to music and it was my whole overview to life really. I like to hear different things and do different things and I am really lucky because there is an audience, small yet loyal that is willing to support that kind of thing and they know that if they go out and buy a Steve Vai record, it's going to be different then the last one, but there is a thread that runs through them all, which I can't escape and I don't want to.

Q: Are you touring with the same band members Mike Keneally, Mike Mangini, Robin DiMaggio, Philip Bynoe, Bryan Beller from your previous past tours?

A: Yes, I have the same band as last time. I added this kid, he's 20 years old. His name is Dave Wiener. He started out as a personal assistant and played guitar, so I eventually had him playing songs here and there and now he's in the band. He's not on the record.

But the Ultra Zone CD

By Randy Cohen

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