In 1985, Hollywood sought out Steve Vai to play the guitar-shredding contender who duels with the devil in Crossroads. As skillful a player in real life as his prodigious character in the cult film, the Grammy-winning guitar player, producer, and composer accepted the challenge. After all, few can make the guitar talk—literally—the way Steve Vai does. The Berklee-trained guitarist had honed his skills at school, ultimately, leaving for the West Coast to play for and with Frank Zappa. Vai evolved as a musician. His virtuosity coupled with expansive vision earned him the reputation as one of the most progressive players of the last three decades. Vai’s evocative playing style and technical prowess has won numerous accolades, landed him gigs with David Lee Roth, catapulted his solo career, and even resulted in the creation of a signature JEM guitar with Ibanez of which he co-designed.
Vai’s masterful approach to the guitar has had a significant impact on the music industry while his compositions, including his second album, Passion and Warfare, prove their timelessness. The complex instrumental album features unique layers of texture and emotion. It is one of those albums that music enthusiasts have kept in their collection. As Passion and Warfare celebrates its 25th anniversary this year, Vai released his latest album, Modern Primitive. The new album revisits where Vai was musically during the earlier formative years. It is a “continuation,” as he describes. The result is a current tour which mixes Passion and Primitive along with visuals, creating a luscious blend of sensory experience for his audiences.
We recently caught up with Steve Vai to discuss his new album, the 25th anniversary of Passion and Warfare, playing alongside other guitarists on tours such as Generation Axe and more.
Can you describe the experience of touring with the new album, Modern Primitive, along with Passion and Warfare—mixing nostalgia with the new?
Well, I’m having a nostalgic time (laughs). It’s really a nice project because my first solo record was Flex-Able. It was bizarre, somewhat of a quirky record where I was basically learning how to record and engineer and write music and get it out. I never really expected to release it, but when I did it I was surprised at how much I enjoyed it—having a record out. I just thought, ‘Hey, I’m just going to do this for the rest of my life!’ I started working on new music with this band I had called The Classified, and then I joined this band Alcatraz… I was offered a solo record deal with Capitol Records, and that’s kind of when I put everything else I was working on the shelf and started writing new music which became Passion and Warfare.
So, when the 25th anniversary for Passion and Warfare came around, I thought this was a good opportunity to go back and finish that music I started in between Flex-Able and Passion and Warfare and that became Modern Primitive. It’s sort of a missing link between the guy that made Flex-Able and the guy that made Passion and Warfare. It was very interesting to go back and listen to that music and complete it because whenever you create something it’s like a little snapshot of who you were at that time. It was kind of charming to peer into the psyche of a 24- or 25-year-old Steve Vai, you know?
Did you have moments of surprise when you went back to revisit the music where, for example, you didn’t even remember writing parts?
Yeah, sure. I had that music in the back of my head all these years because there was something in it that kept beckoning me. That is a really wonderful age for finding your identity, finding your uniquely creative voice, there’s this angst in it, there’s the discovery of freedom and independence at that age. When I was writing and making that music I had no expectations for success, and that is very liberating. It just opens the possibility to just do whatever the heck you want without any fear. That’s kind of what I got when I went back to listen to it was how fearless it was, bold.
“Pink and Blows Over” is a continuation on three tracks on Modern Primitive. Why is that?
That was one of those stream of conscience things where I wanted to do something quirky, adventurous, intense, lighthearted, extraordinarily musical, rich, funny…it was like if you rolled all that into one feeling…I took that, I sat down and started playing and writing…And the lyrics, I don’t even know what they meant. They just came out. It was like automatic writing, and then I taught it to the band, and that whole second movement by Tommy Mars is like one of the most musical things that’s ever appeared on any of my records for sure. It was really based on the genius of Tommy Mars, how he took the melody that I wrote and did all these variations on it. I’ve got about three hours of him improvising that stuff, and I had to chop it down to 13 minutes or whatever, and that was painful (laughs).
And then the last movement, when we used to do that song 30 years ago with The Classified—those chord changes is more of a reflection of my jazz fusion roots when I was going to Berklee, because that style of playing that I do on that third movement is unlike anything that I’d done through the years. There are these wildly fast chord changes going by, and when you improvise over chord changes you can’t just do anything. Well, you can do anything you want, but you’ll sound like an idiot (laughs). There’s a particular sophistication when you’re playing over jazz that you’ve got to be aware of, and I kind of nailed it in that, I think.
While you’ve been successful in incorporating the emotional element into your playing, is that also something you try to convey to the students you teach in the master classes through TrueFire?
I’ve always enjoyed teaching because when you teach, you learn…I’ve had such a wonderfully blessed career, I’ve learned so much and I’ve been through so much that I enjoy sharing things with young players that are different than the convention guitar tips like academics or scales or riffs or stuff like that, because when I look back at my career I can see the most important thing in it—as far as what lends itself to the quality of my experience—was the quality of my enjoyment in the music itself. It’s all really based on the quality of the thoughts that you’re thinking as you’re doing it. It sounds esoteric, but it’s really the basis of your experience in any field. And I can see when I look back at my career, how my attitude and perspective had everything to do with what was happening in my life at the time and the people I was attracting into my life and the music that was coming out, so that’s what I talk about. It’s more of an esoteric approach to teaching because that’s really the important stuff.
Another anniversary is approaching—Eat ‘Em and Smile came out in ‘86—you had mentioned the possibility of reuniting with Dave, Billy and Gregg…Will you guys be getting together at some point?
It’s something that we’ve talked about. And it’s something that we all feel would be really nice if it could be worked out. The only question is getting all the stars to align. Everybody has such congested schedules…nothing is written in stone, but there’s a good intention there.
You seem to tackle huge projects such as the Tokyo Metropolitan Symphony Orchestra. Do you have anything marinating now that will take shape after this tour?
Yeah, too many things (laughs). I like to leave some empty space after a project to let the inspiration for the next one arise, but there are a couple of things I’d love to do. One of them—what I’m thinking of for my next record—is kind of stripping things down and going back to bass, drums and guitar, like a trio. But what I would do would not be conventional by any means. I imagine a different approach to a trio in that I would like to create these tapestries of sound using delays and loops and then playing over them. That’s one idea. Because I haven’t really made many ‘guitar records’ so to speak, I mean like really stripped down ‘guitar records’. Alien Love Secrets was probably the only one. My other records are more compositional, they’re pretty produced, there’s a lot of density in them. This would be a return to the guitar being handed out on a silver platter so to speak.
And then I have this project that is similar to Alive in an Ultra World. It involves orchestras and holograms and cultural performances in various countries around the world. It’s a huge project. It will take a couple of years.
That is quite an epic project. I can’t wait to see that…
Yeah, me too (laughs). I’m checking out the technology. It’s starting to evolve nicely.
You use visuals in an interesting way on this tour through video clips, lighting, and light-up inlays on the guitar. How did this become part of the vision had for this anniversary tour?
Visuals are something I’ve always been interested in incorporating, but there’s a huge expense in it. I’ve only just now started with screens on tour, and it’s nice because we have new videos going in the back of every song and some parts of the show I actually have friends of mine appearing on the screen that I jam with. It’s fun. It looks great. It sounds cool. It’s a big plus.
But this other thing I’m talking about is very different…I haven’t discussed it much because it’s a huge undertaking. It would involve me composing music for various orchestras around the world and then visiting those places, having them perform it and then film myself playing with them along with some cultural act from that culture and filming it in holography. And creating a scenario where the materials would be sent to various orchestras around the world and the orchestras will perform this music while the holograms would be shown. So that’s a huge project. I hope I get to it (laughs).
Sounds like an ambitious project, however, you’re definitely not lacking ambition…
Well, what it is is you get a compelling idea—we’re creative creatures—and when an idea becomes compelling enough, and you know you can do it, that’s one of the great fulfillments in life, you know? We all love that.
What is it like playing with other guitar players on tours such as Generation Axe? Is the vibe competitive? Can you still learn from others at this point? Or do you feel you’ve taken it as far as it can go?
Well, you never take it as far as it can go. I’m never quite there (laughs). I love playing with other guitar players. The ones I’ve played with, which is virtually all of them…All of these guys are very accomplished at what they do. They have a unique voice on the instrument, and when you’re with them, they compel you to be the best that you can be with your own unique voice, because you don’t sit there and try to copy what they’re doing, that’s kind of silly. First of all, you can’t. Second of all, you’d look foolish, and that’s not what people want. So, playing with great musicians is one of the best ways to get better, and everybody I’ve played with has something to learn from.
The Passion and Warfare 25th Anniversary Tour comes to Town Hall in New York, NY on Nov. 9, The Space At Westbury in Westbury, NY on Nov. 12, and the State Theatre in New Brunswick, NJ on Nov. 14. Additional details can be found at Vai.com.