You might think that you can’t teach an older guitarist new licks, but 52-year-old Steve Vai retains an ever-youthful curiosity and hunger for new musical combinations. Just take in The Story Of Light, his first studio album in seven years, and you can hear influences as diverse as blues, metal and Hawaiian slack-key guitar. One aspect of his life that keeps the legendary axeman plugged in to cultural changes is fatherhood. His two adult sons, avid music listeners throughout their lives, have certainly perked up his ears over the years through their aural adventurousness.
“They don’t listen to the radio at all,” Vai told The Aquarian on a recent tour stop. “The radio is a boring, insipid sort of nonsense to them. When they go out, they infiltrate every new music culture, and it’s great for me because I get to hear all this stuff. That’s how I heard the new generations of metal bands that have come in. My 23-year-old is into this really heavy progressive metal stuff, bands like Chelsea Grin and iwrestledabearonce. My other son who’s 20 is really into this dubstep/trip-hop/house stuff, so he brought me the Skrillex record. That was an awakening for me.”
Funnily enough, and perhaps predictably enough, the musical exchange between father and sons is not exactly reciprocal. “When I try to bring them Ziggy Stardust, Led Zeppelin II, Billion Dollar Babies or Queen II and tell them they have to listen to this stuff, they just scratch their head [and] go, ‘I don’t know, Dad, it sounds really old.’”
The Story Of Light, the second album of a conceptual trilogy that began with Vai’s 2005 release Real Illusions: Reflections, sounds fresh. The tale being told is out of order and mostly instrumental. The guitarist reveals that before he recorded the first album, he had the story and “the idea of expressing the story in shadows over a period of three records.” His ultimate goal is, after the future release of the third album, to put them in a box set with the songs in the proper order and perhaps add another album’s worth of narrative and vocal material. “Maybe even take some of the melody songs and make them vocal tracks,” he added. “At the end of the day, I should have a project that’s very accessible and laid out in a linear story fashion.”
For fans interested in the “esoteric story,” Vai noted that the overview of the story is already out there. “A lot of the details of the character development and the events, much of that is not expressed at all, just fragments with some of the lyrics and liner notes.” The new lyrical entries on The Story Of Light include “John The Revelator” and “Book Of The Seven Seals” (which feature vocals from The Voice finalist Beverly McClellan, who is opening for Vai’s current tour) and “No More Amsterdam” (with lyrics and singing from Aimee Mann, an old schoolmate of Vai’s).
Among the standout tracks is “Mullach A’tSi,” a contemplative duet interweaving Vai’s subdued axework with the heavenly electric harp of Deborah Henson-Conant. It casts a relaxing spell. This genre-crossing, Grammy-nominated musician, who Vai reportedly called the “Jimi Hendrix of the harp,” usually dons cool stage clothes (like leather outfits) rather than assume the formal classical performer look one would associate with her instrument. Vai discovered her music while surfing the web.
“I always like to bring a different dimension to the stage show, something interesting and maybe a little unorthodox,” he mused. “On my last tour I had these two fantastic violin players, and I made that video and live record Where The Wild Things Are. In putting this together, I wondered what I could do that was interesting, esoteric and unexpected but very musical and could work with the band. I came across Deborah Henson-Conant. She plays a strap-on harp and plays it unlike any kind of orthodox orchestral harpist. It works so much better than I could’ve even expected. She’s touring in the band, and it’s really beautiful.”
A more contentious contribution to the dynamic Story Of Light is the coupling of “John The Revelator” and “Book Of The Seven Seals.” The heavy, bluesy first track builds from a vocal sample of the original song as performed by Blind Willie Johnson (and found on the Anthology Of American Folk Music box set), and then transforms in the second piece into hokier sounding gospel. And this was done on purpose.
“The [first] song opens with a sample of the original version, and it is definitely dated and has a particular mojo to it, but then as soon as the guitars come, it’s a whole different beast,” declared Vai. “With ‘Book Of The Seven Seals,’ when those hokey choir vocals kicks in, it was the fulfillment of a vision for me that had a lot of diversity to it. It was eclectic and really pushed my buttons.”
Critics and fans have been divided over the two connected songs. Vai referenced both a five-star album review that said the tracks were brilliant and another review that thought the couplet marred the album. The Aquarian found a review that loved “John” but disliked “Seven Seals” for its hokiness. Yet Vai used that word to describe the latter tune.
“You have to understand that I knew what I was doing,” he stressed. “I know with the big choir and the arrangement how white it sounds, how Midwest Republican it is, and used that as a texture—an absurd texture, as the juxtapositioning of this massive piece of music. Discerning listeners get it, and people who just want to hear widdly-widdly guitar shit just don’t get it. That’s okay. It’s not going to stop me.”
The advent of new technology does not hamper Vai either. It simply excites him further. When the discussion changed to that subject, and the way that younger generations use technology and absorb music through it, the six-string virtuoso once again referenced his children.
“My kids fascinate me,” he said. “My older son Julian played Warcraft [games] for years, and his ability to react, move and think completely and utterly out maneuvers me. He gets bored very quickly. The things that I relish—I’ll sit and do something and be patient and enjoy the process—he’ll come in and go dat-dat-dat-dat-dat and it’s done. The way he types is faster than I could even think or play the guitar. He is still focusing an intense amount of attention on something, but it’s just at a very different pace than what my generation is used to because the tools at his disposal are very different.”
Some would argue, as a recent Newsweek cover story called “iCrazy” did, that our heavy use of technology is leading to mental illness and increased ADD, along with our brains being rewired. Unplugging a bit might not be a bad idea.
“It depends on your perspective,” countered Vai. “My perspective is bring it on because I like stimulation, and I’m not going to get ADD over it. It’s an adjustment process, and we’ve been doing it ever since we were born. Some people’s make-up is just different, and they get intimidated by change and overwhelmed. I get it. When I go on my computer, there are things I just don’t want to know about it. For most kids, it’s easy for them. I just choose not to know about it, but I still use the computer for whatever I need.”
Steve Vai will be at the State Theatre in New Brunswick, NJ, on Sept. 7, the Mayo Performing Arts Center in Morristown, NJ, on Sept. 8, and the Best Buy Theater in NYC on Sept. 11. For more information, go to vai.com.