On September 29th Steve Vai’s live DVD “Where The Wild Things Are” will be released. Recorded in Minneapolis the DVD is an assault on the senses featuring not only Vai’s handy work but violinsts Alex DePue and Ann Marie Calhoun as well as a collective group of impressive musicians to complement Vai.
Always thinking of his fans first, Vai’s number one goal was to entertain the masses and stimulate the senses – all of them. Everyone involved in the performance is emotionally invested and Vai hopes that they can provoke the same of their audience.
Always a few steps ahead of everyone else, Vai has been a complete innovator with everything he does and is constantly pushing creative boundaries. It’s almost impossible to believe that it was over 25 years ago that Vai’s first solo cd “Flex-able” was released.
The always honest and charming Steve recently took some time to talk to us about the new DVD, other projects he’s got in the works, and of course, bees!
Interviewed by: Mary Ouellette | August 2009
So your live DVD “Where The Wild Things Are” comes out on September 29th. For this project you have a really talented group of musicians working with you including an amazing violinist. Given your level of talent, how do you go about finding the right musicians to work with you for these projects?
Obviously they need to be extraordinarily talented in some way and have some musical potential but for the most part the person that I look for is someone that I think is going to be able to have a good time once they get out there. A tour is like a chunk of your life and when you’re out on tour with people and living with them on a bus and sharing everything, there are no secrets at sea – you really get to know these people. If somebody has a bad disposition or is a real asshole then when they get on tour they become even more miserable and an even bigger asshole. That can put a black cloud over that part of your life no matter how successful the tour or record is. If you find good, fun respectful people when they get on tour they have a lot of fun and it’s a good experience. For me it’s more important for me to be able to look back in my life and have these moments of fun and good feeling than anything else.
Having said that, yes, they do need to be able to play their asses off. I totally lucked out with this band – these are completely beautiful wonderful people and when we tour I make a conscious effort to keep the awareness very high that we are lucky and fortunate to have the opportunity to actually be out there and to be playing and to have people come and see us. That creates this aura of respect and humility and for me that’s what goes into making a great atmosphere to perform.
You’ve said that in making the DVD and referring to your live shows in general that you want the musicianship to shine through without being too cerebral or too over-indulgent so do you feel that you accomplished that with this DVD?
I don’t think that you can accomplish that for everybody because there are people that will never be satisfied, and there’s people that anything that has more than a sixteenth note in it feel that it’s going to be cerebral. I have to work within the parameters of what I think is accessible and beautiful and entertaining. As far as that goes, I feel like I really hit the mark hard. On this DVD I see incredible musicianship but I don’t see the musicians beating you up with their musical intellect. I see what they’re doing, this being playful yet experienced and powerful. The thing that I want is for people to feel like they’re being left with is an entertaining experience where they can leave and feel uplifted. What else is there? I don’t get up there and beat people up with how unhappy I am with myself and how fucked up I think the world is because I don’t feel that way and even if I did I don’t want to express that kind of a message because it will perpetuate itself. I try to create an atmosphere where when people leave and they have to go back to their life that they’re left with something that has a little entertainment value. That’s what an artist does, I see myself as serving the public to a greater or lesser degree, so when I see the DVD, I want it to have real emotional dynamics and I want people to feel like they’re on the brink of being brutalized by the intensity of the music. At the same token I want them to feel like they’re being gently caressed by the harmonic comforts that I emanate.
Your work has become a lot more orchestral over the years but I think that that probably is a natural progression for someone as proficient as you are. Looking back to the Flexible days, did you envision this path for your music?
Absolutely. I knew where my musical taste lied. I’ve always had the desire and the love for compositional type music but I’m a rocker at heart. Through the years I’ve bounced all over the place. I can do a project that’s pretty rock and roll and straight ahead and then I can do a project like Sound Theories which is totally orchestral and then I can do something like Where the Wild Things Are which has a couple of violins in it but I wouldn’t consider it orchestral by any means. My next project is probably going to be rock based and then I’m doing a project after that with a hundred piece symphony, so it bounces all over the place.
Hearing Chickenfoot made me think of you, it’s interesting to hear Joe in a band setting – It’s been a long time since you were in a “band” – does the idea of working in a collaborative situation seem appealing to you? Do you ever see yourself being part of a band again?
I wouldn’t say never, but it’s not anything that I’m thinking about. I’m so content playing my music the way I want to hear it with people that are excited to play it. Although I appreciate the idea of getting together with a group of people and creating something that’s a mutual contribution, I like being in charge. I have a vision of what I want and I like to go after that, that’s what I’m really interested in right now.
So you just mentioned that your next project is rock based, can you tell us anything about that?
It’s rock-based in the sense that it’s not orchestral. I’m not exactly sure what it’s going to be. I’m working on this thing now where I’ll be releasing once a month digitally only, a piece of music. That’s going to run the gamut because I have a tremendous amount of work in the vault. It will be sort of like a supplement to a normal cd release but it’s a good way to keep things flowing. I’m unlike a lot of artists in that you can’t really put your finger on what I do. I don’t do one thing and stick to it. My music is not genre specific. I would never do a jazz project or a blues project or a classical project, I make an effort to move within different dimensions of my own musical inspiration as opposed to selecting specific genres.
I read an old interview you did and something you said struck me as very interesting. You said that you don’t consider yourself a natural when it comes to playing musical instruments and I think a lot of people would be surprised and inspired by hearing that. Can you talk to us about that?
Oh sure. It’s not uncommon for people who compose music to not know how to play instruments. It’s a weird thing when it comes to actual music I can see it and I hear it in my head and I know how to get it out. If I’m going to write something for a harp I understand that a harp player has to be able to hit certain pedals and have certain span with their fingers so that when I write something for a harp player it’s going to come out playable for them, but I can’t play the harp. Like piano, in my mind’s eye I can see anything I hear when I hear someone play the piano, and when I go to write for the piano I can write for the most accomplished pianist because I understand the mechanics of it but I can’t even play a Beatles song on the damn piano. I don’t get it. It’s just one of those things, a brain thing. The guitar is the same thing; I had to work really really hard to play the guitar. Most people, if they worked as hard as I did, they’d probably play better than me. But then you have guys like Prince, maybe he doesn’t compose but he can play every instrument and it’s amazing that there are people that can do that.
Your record label Favored Nations has been a God-send to guitar music fans – but being the owner of a record label has to have its ups and downs, how has the experience been for you?
I think you nailed it, it has its ups and downs. The ups are that I get to work with people that I feel are uniquely talented and have a passion and a drive for what they’re doing and it’s very rewarding because I’m lending a hand and helping them to make their music available to the world. It’s challenging because the economics of a record label just suck these days. Nobody is buying cds and there were years where it was simply a labor of love and I lost a lot of money. These days I have to make it make economic sense and not just a labor of love because you can’t do that for very long.
Talk to me a little bit about Naked Tracks – can you explain the concept behind it and the inspiration to do something like that?
First you have to take off all of your clothes…and put on a guitar…and play with naked soul. No actually it was an idea that started twenty five years ago. We mixed the records without the lead guitar so that I could play along and one day I’ll release a box set so that a lot of people can play along. It worked because twenty five years later I have this rich catalog of music and mixes without the lead guitar, so I compiled them. It’s a great tool for people to play along to if they want, they’re very colorful tracks, it’s like karaoke.
So over the last decade or so you’ve been involved with bees and were very hands on with educating people about their importance and the dangers of bee extinction. I was just wondering if that was still something you were passionate about?
Oh yeah. I always get asked about bees. I know way too much. It just started out as a fun hobby and bees are just fascinating creatures. It’s a beautiful hobby really. Bees are very special. First of all they’re gorgeous, they’ve got those big almond eyes, and ninety five percent of them are women and I just find myself chasing the queen all the time.
For more info on Steve Vai and his projects visit his official website.