Interview with Steve Vai

His latest album, The Story of Light, has just been released and he is currently touring across Europe. Mick Burgess caught up with guitarist Steve Vai just before he heads over for some UK shows.

You have a new album out The Story of Light which is your first since 2005. That’s quite a gap between albums for you. What have you been up to since then?

I did work on the Sound Theories project which was an orchestral project I did with the Metropole Orchestra from Holland and we released an album called the Sound Theories Volume I and II from that featuring me playing with the orchestra and then the orchestra playing some of my compositions. We also released a DVD called Visual Sound Theories featuring live performances of the shows with the orchestra. I also spent some time on the road with the Experience Hendrix tour which celebrated the work of Jimi Hendrix and included contributions from Billy Cox from the Jimi Hendrix Experience and The Band of Gypsys; Brad Whitford from Aerosmith and Kenny Wayne Shephard. That was a lot of fun to do. I also did the Zappa Plays Zappa tour with Dweezil Zappa. I’ve also developed an online guitar tutoring course called Steve Vai Guitar Techniques in which I show you some of the styles and methods that I use in my music and I’ve been working on new material all the time so I’ve been pretty busy over the last few years.

The album is subtitled “The Story of Light Real Illusions Of A…..” is this a continuation of 2005’s Real Illusions: Reflections?

Yes it is. In a particular sense I read this story a while back and I wanted to express it over a series of records. I wanted to tell the story through the music and thought it would take three records so this is the second part of that story.

Although mainly instrumental, there is a concept running through the album. What is the album about?

It’s a story about a town that is visited by a guy called Pamposh who builds a church in this town and the problems and issues he encounters. There’s a lot of twists and turns along the way, but that is the main theme of the story.

There’s extensive text in the CD booklet. It’s almost as if you’ve gone to the effort of writing lyrics without using them with a vocalist. Did you want to include the words to put the music into context of the story?

The booklet contains excerpts from the story and bits of ideas here and there to help with character development and to provide a basic structure to the story line on which the music adds the detail.

As always there’s such a lot going on musically with a range of Rock, Jazz, Blues and even a touch of Hawaiian, Gospel and Oriental. Where do you start when you write?

I start by finding a good idea. Inspiration for ideas just comes and I can’t really do it on command. When it comes, I’ve just got to grab it. I have a diverse musical taste and try not to sound genre specific. I don’t want my songs to sound Blues, Jazz or straight Rock or anything like that. I like to create my own sort of identity with it. Something like John the Revelator has some elements of Blues in it but it’s not a Blues song or a Gospel song, it has several elements to it that makes it different.

It’s complex music. How do you convey your ideas to the rest of your band?

I usually sketch the songs out in the studio then I show the different band members the part but usually I do it all in the studio myself.

In the past some people have accused you of using too many notes but there’s a lot of strong melodies throughout the album. Do think it’s always important to you to have those strong melodies to build your music around?

I like melody. Melody is kind of like the soul of the song. I build stuff around a melody and sometimes my idea of melody can be complex like the song The Story of Light. The whole last section is a composed melody that is very intensely orchestrated but is still very melodic. There’s some more simple stuff on the album too like “Creamsicle Sunset” which is more of a chord melody. Sometimes I avoid melody and just look for textures. The first part of The Story of Light is more textural than melody based. I wanted to create a wall of sound with assorted 7 string guitars playing these chords that were just tension filled and dense.

Each time you listen to your album you discover parts you hadn’t noticed at first. Do you think that this gives your music more staying power than an album that is more instant?

It’s nice to hear that and maybe that gives the record more shelf life. I think a lot of it has to do with the listener’s perception too. Recently I went back and listened to some of my old Mott The Hoople records and they sounded really different to me now than they did back when I first l heard them.

You have a couple of guest vocalists on your album including Aimee Mann. You don’t tend to associate Aimee with Rock albums. How did she become involved and why did you want Aimee on your album?

I actually went to college with Amy, the Berkley College of Music and we actually lived in the same apartment building. My girlfriend at the time, who is now my wife, was best friends with Amy so over the years we’ve always had Amy’s music in the house and I have always found so much enjoyment in it, she’s like a poet. Her voice is so confident, yet vulnerable. I wrote this song and there was a place for it in the story which needed to be sung by a man and a woman. I was trying to write the lyrics and I’m usually pretty good at those but I hit a block and that usually tells me I need to take a left turn. I was telling my wife and she suggested calling Amy. My first reaction was like your reaction but then I thought it might work as it was such a sweet song. I sent it to her and she liked it. She wrote all the lyrics and contributed some wonderful vocals. It was a really nice collaboration.

She brings such a lovely, smooth melodic tone to” No More Amsterdam” in contrast to Beverley McClellan who’s rasping Blues voice really grabs you by the throat on “John The Revelator”. Were you looking for two contrasting voices when looking for suitable singers?

Yeah, I just wanted a contrast between the singers. It was amazing how that happened. I heard the original Blind Willie Johnson track, I have all of his music and am really enamoured by him and I love a lot of those old Gospel singers and Blues guys too. I have this Americana box set and when I heard “John the Revelator” on there I imagined all these guitars and this thunderous choir that I wanted to add to the song. The next song on my album “Book of the Seven Seals” was originally going to be part of “John the Revelator” but I cut it in half and made it into two songs instead. It’s now more of a glorified Broadway piece or something where I juxtaposed all these different textures and one of those was the Gospel choir and I needed something that was a total contrast to that. I really needed a lead singer that was powerful. I would have sung it myself but I know my limitations and I would have destroyed the song. The universe will provide as they say. I was at this Grammy event and Beverley McClellan took to the stage and absolutely blew me away. We met up and just connected. I thought she’d be perfect to sing the part on John the Revelator so I asked her and she did a fantastic job. She’s on tour with me so make sure you catch her set if you’re coming. She plays with just a guitar or sometimes a keyboard and is incredible. She does sometimes join me for John the Revelator but it’s an extremely demanding song as she has to be full throttle and she has to be careful how she treats her voice.

She was actually a contestant on America’s version of The Voice?

That’s right. There is some real talent out there and The Voice gave her the opportunity to be heard and she is a real, genuine talent.

On 1st December you start a 6 date UK tour. Are you looking forward to coming back to the UK?

I’m looking forward to it so much. I love playing the UK; you guys are so friendly and so into the music. It’s a pleasure for me to play over there.

You play in Newcastle’s wonderful City Hall on 5th. Do you sometimes find the ambience and architecture of some of the old UK halls gives your show a little extra edge and atmosphere compared to playing in modern sheds?

Yes, absolutely. I love those kind of places; they are just so beautiful and atmospheric. To be honest, I’ll play anywhere from clubs to arenas. In fact I’m in a Coliseum in Latvia tonight so that should be interesting. My favourites though are those lovely theatres like The City Hall and the Apollo.

Do you know that in that very hall Motorhead recorded most of No Sleep ‘Til Hammersmith, Blackfoot recorded part of Highway Song Live and some of BOC’s Some Enchanted Evening was recorded there?

That’s so cool. They are all great records. There’s so much history in a venue like The City Hall and that’s one of the reasons I love playing there so much.

You’ve become known for your Evo Meet and Greets which you started years ago when very few other artists had thought of them. What do you have lined up for these for your UK fans?

I will be doing those again on the UK tour. A few of them are sold out but you can buy them through my website I enjoy doing them as it’s a great opportunity to talk to people that are really interested in the music. They have a different take on things, it’s such a comfortable environment. I sit and talk with them for an hour. They also get to see the sound check, have a look at some of my guitars and ask any questions they want and get a load of stuff signed. It’s really fun for me and the fans too. It’s a nice part of the day.

You have a fantastic collection of guitars but your latest, the Ultra Guitar looks to be the most impressive yet. It could be something from the Alien movie. Will that be coming out on tour with you?

A guy in Ireland called Alistair Hay who has Emerald Guitars designed that for me. He made that guitar based on the cover of my Ultra Zone album. It plays really great. I use it for the “Ultra Zone” and it’s like a performance piece where I come out with these lights on my fingers and head and an alien suit with, like, a welder’s mask. It’s pretty funny but looks good in the show. The guitar really goes well with that.

You have possibly one of the most un-Rock ‘n’ Roll hobbies around…beekeeping. How did you get into that?

It’s a very simple hobby really. I stumbled across it because we had moved into this property with two acres of land that had been vacant for 10 years. I wanted to plant some fruit trees and my wife wanted a nice garden. I did some research and found out that honey bees are a great way to pollinate. It’s a really easy hobby and it’s a beautiful hobby. For me it’s a moment with nature. The bees have personalities and they make wonderful honey. I get tons and tons of honey. Sometimes we sell some on our website for charity so keep checking if you want some.

Your UK tour finishes in Manchester on 7th December. What will you be doing for the rest of the year?

After the UK shows I’m heading back over to mainland Europe and will play some shows in Germany and Scandinavia. I’ll then head back home to spend Christmas with my family.

Steve Vai’s UK tour starts on 1st December at The Guildhall, Plymouth and ends on 7th December at O2 Apollo, Manchester.

Steve Vai’s latest album The Story of Light is out now.


  • Mick Burgess

    Mick is a reviewer and photographer here at Metal Express Radio, based in the North-East of England. He first fell in love with music after hearing Jeff Wayne's spectacular The War of the Worlds in the cold winter of 1978. Then in the summer of '79 he discovered a copy of Kiss Alive II amongst his sister’s record collection, which literally blew him away! He then quickly found Van Halen I and Rainbow's Down To Earth, and he was well on the way to being rescued from Top 40 radio hell!   Over the ensuing years, he's enjoyed the Classic Rock music of Rush, Blue Oyster Cult, and Deep Purple; the AOR of Journey and Foreigner; the Pomp of Styx and Kansas; the Progressive Metal of Dream Theater, Queensrÿche, and Symphony X; the Goth Metal of Nightwish, Within Temptation, and Epica, and a whole host of other great bands that are too numerous to mention. When he's not listening to music, he watches Sunderland lose more football (soccer) matches than they win, and occasionally, if he has to, he goes to work as a property lawyer.

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