Guitarist extraordinaire Steve Vai has played with everyone from Frank Zappa to Whitesnake and David Lee Roth over the course of a career that stretches back some 30 years. The guy plays a little bit of everything — power ballads, orchestral pieces, and instrumentals. He’s currently touring behind his new album The Story of Light, and he performs at the House of Blues on Monday. Beverly McClellan opens, and tickets are $27-$50. He recently spoke to us via phone from his Los Angeles home.
It seems like there’s a lack of good young guitar players. But you would know better than me. Do you think there are fewer true players than there used to be?
I think there’s a lot of good young players. There are people always trying to push the boundaries of technique and technology. We don’t hear about them until they do something that is accessible to the masses. They’re just doing what’s interesting to them. If somebody comes along and they do something accessible, it’s because it was very natural. Otherwise, it just doesn’t sound authentic and doesn’t really fly.
So is your music accessible?
No. The stuff I do isn’t accessible to pop culture but it’s very accessible to a group of people who like it. There are people who like the instrumental guitar stuff and people who like the hardcore esoteric compositional stuff and the orchestra stuff and the vocal ballads. It’s across the board. Some of the music is really out there. It’s inside but just in a different part of the playground.
When you’re making an album like The Story of Light do you think about your audience and the expectations or does that not enter the equation?
What I’ve discovered is that you can’t second-guess your audience. Any artist has an audience because they’ve done things that are important and exciting to them. There’s this preconceived notion that if you start writing songs like Elton John or Mariah Carey, you will get on the radio. That can’t be more far removed from the truth. You’re competing with people who do that naturally. You’ll be most successful at the thing that’s the most natural and authentic to you and your fanbase will be more authentic.
What are you trying to do differently on The Story of Light?
Nothing. I wait for an idea to come along that’s exciting and once it gets so compelling, I can’t hold it in any more, I have to bring it into the physical world. That’s the process. One is finding inspiration by a good idea and letting it reach a bubbling point where I feel really compelled to create it. And then there’s the guy who has to create it and that can be laborious and time consuming and mundane. Then when it’s done there’s the guy who listens to it and says you hit or missed the mark. That’s the process that I go through. Having said that, the projects can be widely different.
What made you want to work with Aimee Mann?
Interesting story. I had this track, which was a beautiful acoustic piece. The whole “story of light” is the second installment of a large concept extravaganza. The songs are depictions of characters and events. In that song, this guy looks into the reflecting pond and is confronted with the face and voice of a guardian angel to speak. It’s the voice of high judgment. I wanted it to be a duo with a man and woman. I started to write the lyrics and I hit a block and I had gone to Berklee College of music with Aimee. We lived in the same building. My wife, who was my girlfriend at the time, was friends with her. I always thought she was brilliant and she’s like a poet. She said, “Why don’t you call Aimee and see if she wants to work with you?” I sent her the song and she liked it. It was glorious. She wrote the lyrics. It was beautiful collaboration.
What about working with Beverly?
It was a little different. I had the song and lyrics. The song is “John the Revelator,” and I was inspired by this early recording of Blind Willie Johnson doing it. I sampled that and put it on the track, but I wanted to have all these big guitars and wild esoteric production of that and “Book of Seven Seals,” which was part of “John the Revelator.” It’s part of the story so it’s theatrical and has intense hokey sounding vocal choruses. When the track was done, I needed somebody to sing it. I was going to sing it but I know my limitations. I saw Beverly perform and she’s amazing. She’s an extremely natural talent. I approached her and she liked the track and wanted to do it. She is on tour with me. Occasionally she comes out and sings “John.” It’s a bear of a song to sing. We’ll do eight or nine shows in a row because I don’t have to sing. But a singer can’t do that, especially with a song like that so it’s nice when she can join us on it.
Talk about the inspiration for “The Moon and I.”
It was part of a period of my life that I went through when I was young in my twenties and grappling with reality. I went through a massive depression and when you’re a young kid and going through it, you don’t understand it and think you’re the only one. It was like my soul crying for some recognition. I was fortunate because I found my way. During those periods, there was these very vivid dreams that I would have but they were the antithesis of depression. They were euphoric. The things I was seeing and feeling were inexpressible. That song was written based on those moments of luminous euphoria and the way I felt as I seemed to be traveling through the cosmos without a care in the world.
What made you want to revisit that?
It’s not uncommon for an artist to revisit certain frames of mind. It’s your perspective on them that will perpetuate your own frame of mind. Everyone has had their heart broken and felt depression. Everyone has challenges. If I write songs on those things, they perpetuate them into now. Next thing you know, you’re in a frame of mind that’s underwater. I don’t want that in my life. There’s this common belief that if you’re angry you can get it out in your music and it will make you will feel better. I don’t think that’s healthy. You perpetuate that frame of mind. If you take a positive perspective that makes you feel good, you will perpetuate that in your life. It’s stupidly simple. We get stuck in the mind noise and make every excuse in the world why we should be fucked up and angry and heartbroken. It’s bullshit.
What was the most important thing you learned from working from Zappa?
Independence. Frank was extremely independent. He was fiercely independent. He was independent in the way he thought and the way he made his music and the way he did his business. It was laid out to me on a silver platter. I was a young kid and very impressionable. When I went into the world as an independent musician, I would always think about the way Frank did it and thought that was the way to do it. In reality, less a tenth of a percentage of the artists have that kind of mental independence.
Do you prefer working as a solo artist?
I prefer being a solo artist now. Back then, I preferred being a solo artist in my mind. I enjoyed being in those bands and touring. I liked being the guy next to the lead singer. I was more comfortable with that and as things evolved and I became more confident in my ability, I enjoy being out front now.