STEVE VAI On Playing With FRANK ZAPPA: 'A Day Doesn't Pass Where I Don't Marvel That It All Happened'
November 12, 2018
Legendary guitarist Steve Vai was recently interviewed on "Whiplash", the KLOS radio show hosted by Full Metal Jackie. You can now watch the chat below. A few excerpts follow (transcribed by BLABBERMOUTH.NET).
On whether he is having fun on the "Generation Axe" tour, which sees him joining forces with Zakk Wylde, Yngwie Malmsteen, Nuno Bettencourt and Tosin Abasi:
Steve: "We really do. In the beginning, the idea was one of those fantasy kind of thoughts that I had many years ago where there was one backing band and there was all these crazy guitar players coming up, and kind of genre specific, and doing a seamless kind of a show where they each do some music by themselves and then interact with actual arranged music. Because if you get a bunch of guys on a stage like that to just jam, it's gonna be a mess. So we organized a bunch of the classic rock tracks that we do. But it's a great show — it's just a great celebration of the guitar. And once we got out there in the beginning, it was a lot of question marks — like, 'How are you gonna get all these guys on a bus?' And, 'How are you gonna pull this off?' And even the guys were scratching their heads, going, 'Is this really gonna work?' And I said, 'Yup. I know it's gonna work.' And it did. And we did an American tour, and it went fantastic. Of course, there were bumps and stuff, but we really came together as a group of guys that have had amazing stories in our life and have gone through a lifetime, basically, of having a career in the music business and touring and records and all that. So this kind of landed in our lap as sort of like a little vacation from all of that. And it went so well, we did an Asian tour, and I recorded the shows in Asia and I've been editing feverishly on creating a live 'Generation Axe' record, and we have a pledge campaign for it and everything."
On what piques his interest to explore particular ways of playing and incorporate different styles and techniques into his music:
Steve: "Things that don't fall into any particular technique or category. I've been involved with a lot of different kind of music, and I can sort of be a chameleon to a degree, but I'm not very authentic in stylized music. Like, I can play classical, but I'm not great; or country or jazz or even blues, you're not gonna hear authentic music from me. Because when I was growing up, I loved all that stuff, but I never felt good enough to be able to be authentic. But what was happening, which was interesting, that I didn't realize was as a result of that, I was developing a particular unique authenticity, which was just [created] by accident. I was just following my own interests without any kind of regard or expectation for the success of it, because that always has a tendency to hamper your ability to be completely connected with the creative process, because a lot of times when there's all these expecations, you may find yourself with an agenda that changes your instinctual kind of creativity. So, as a result, there's some stylized flavors in my music, but I would never say, 'Here's a great blues song that I did.'"
On having the freedom to write and record any type of album he wants:
Steve: "You do have the luxury of doing whatever you want, and you do have the choice to do it under your own conditions and your own terms. That's a slippery slope, because… I mean, I could say something like that and people would throw a million and one excuses as to why they can't. But all of those excuses are actually the obstacles to the freedom of choice that you have to listen to a record company, not listen to a record company, to take a handle of your finances as a musician, to choose the musicians you wanna play with, to decide what kind of music you wanna record. These are all your absolute, unequivocal, no-exception choices that you can make."
On playing with Frank Zappa starting in 1980 when Vai was only 20 years old:
Steve: "A day doesn't pass where I don't marvel that it all happened, because I was a huge fan. And then I was 18, I actually spoke to him on the phone and he hired me to do transcribing, which was amazing. I was too young to join the band — he wanted me to try out for the band, but when I told him I was 18, he said, 'Forget it.' So when I was 20, I moved out to California — the day after my 20th birthday — and got an apartment right down the street from his house, which was a great advantage, because I was going up there every day, virtually. And then, when auditions came for the band, for a tour, he invited me to the auditions, gave me a bunch of music to learn. He didn't call on any of those songs during the audition — he called on all other songs — and I thought I completely bombed the audition. It was funny, 'cause after the audition, I went up to him. 'Cause he was hard on me — he was really hard. Even some of the people that were there were coming up to me, going, 'He's putting the clamps on you' — that's what we used to say. So I figured, 'I ain't got this gig.' So I went to him after, and I said, 'I'm so sorry I wasted your time coming down here.' And he said, 'What are you talking about? You're in the band.' And that was the first time I hugged him…. But working for Frank was… As you can imagine, being that young, I was completely innocent as far as the ways of touring and being a professional and dealing with the road. I could deal with the music — I was very good at that — and that's what Frank needed. So that worked really well."
On his favorite Frank Zappa moments:
Steve: "There were so many. He was so funny. When you talked to Frank, he listened. You felt as though he was completely dedicated to you, in a sense, in his listening. But also he was very intuitive, so he could feel your intentions behind your words. So you had to be really careful what you say, because if he smelled that you had an agenda or you were being egotistical in any way, you got it back hard — with no excuses, no apologies, no nothing. But when you were sincere, he was great."
"Whiplash" airs every Sunday night from 9:00 p.m. to 11:00 p.m. on the Los Angeles radio station 95.5 KLOS. The show can be heard on the KLOS web site at 955klos.com or you can listen in on the KLOS channel on iHeartRadio.