If you read Guitar Player magazine more often than you read The Wall Street Journal, you know that Steve Vai’s resume is well-documented. Taught by Joe Satriani, Vai moved into the role of Frank Zappa sideman/transcriber before he turned age 20. From there, Vai’s solo career took flight along with membership stints in Whitesnake and David Lee Roth’s band. But, in addition to recording and touring, the virtuoso guitarist has also been a record label founder, movie producer and guitar designer along the way. In 2012, Vai released the CD The Story Of Light and has been actively touring ever since. On Wednesday, November 13, the 53 year-old Vai will perform at Workplay. Showtime is 8 p.m. Recently, we caught up with Vai by phone from Italy.
Brent Thompson: Steve, thanks for your time. If you will, talk about your schedule since the release of The Story Of Light.
Steve Vai: I started touring last year. I did two months in America, two months in Europe and then I took some time off to compose a symphony and then I went to Asia. I’m in Europe again for about six weeks and then I come back to America and I do another run for about six weeks. Then I’m in Mexico, South America and then it’s Christmas.
BT: If you will, talk about the writing and recording of The Story Of Light.
SV: The great thing about making a record is that you can start out with a blank canvas and just imagine stuff and do whatever you want. I’m really fortunate because I’m one of those artists [in that] my audience is already kind of there. I don’t necessarily have to live from one hit to another – in fact, I don’t have any hits [laughs]. There is an audience that loves the guitar and loves the kind of thing that I do. The title – The Story Of Light – if you come up with a title like that and the songs, then you think, ‘How can I relate them to that?’ And then the next thing you know songs start arriving and you start giving them the spin of the title and what the title means to you. They develop their own awareness, so to speak. You let the record take on an aura. I was a teenager in the ‘70s, so I can pick up Led Zeppelin III and immediately I’ll have a nostalgic feeling about the music and the cover. You almost think the music was created for the album art [laughs]. So, that’s kind of what I do.
BT: Is it fair to say that you were a trailblazer by self-releasing your debut solo album and forging your solo career on your own terms?
SV: Without sounding pretentious, I think it is pretty fair. I started my first record company when I was 22 and I released my own record. It seemed simple to me because I liked the music business and I liked the idea of being independent and not having to depend on somebody. A lot of artists feel that once they get signed to a label, life is complete but really that’s where a lot of challenges start. I was always comfortable doing it on my own and I had crazy success with my first solo record on my own label. I went and played with all these Rock bands in the ‘80s which was nice and it built-up a promotion for my second record, Passion Warfare. It was a very well-received record. As far as new technology, I’ve always had an interest for it. My label that I started later on – Favored Nations – we were one of the first labels to have full distribution through iTunes. It’s simple – you keep your ear to the grindstone, you see what’s happening and you use your instincts to think what’s going to work or not.
BT: Keeping with the topic of technology, how do you weigh the pros and cons of today’s musical climate in the era of Internet, iTunes and satellite radio?
SV: I think a lot of it has to do with that attitude of the musician. I will say that, in my opinion, more than any other time in history it’s the best time for an independent artist that has a great attitude to make music because you can make music so much easier and inexpensively now. In 10 minutes you can upload your music and have it in all the digital outlets in the world including iTunes.
BT: As a guitarist of your experience and skill level, you aren’t likely to be shown a new chord or scale that teaches you anything new. With that said, what are the challenges for you as a musician these days?
SV: As far as music theory goes, you can get pretty tapped out. You’re right – I love music theory and composition and I have studied it and studied it and studied it. It’s like learning a language but it’s just a language – it’s not the words themselves. You can learn English, but are you done writing all the poetry that can be written? No, you’re not. So that’s the challenge for me and that has always been the challenge – finding that melody, that riff, that thing that just lights me up and makes me feel like it’s Christmas. Music theory can be an aid or a hinderance. If you identify everything you do in music theory, then your music is going to sound very intellectual and theoretical. I like melody, I like stuff that picks my ears up and that will never stop happening.
Tickets to the 18+ show are $30 – $35 day of the show – and can be purchased at www.workplay.com.