TO CELEBRATE STEVE SIRO VAI’S 60TH BIRTHDAY (ON THE SIXTH DAY OF THE SIXTH MONTH!), I THOUGHT I’D POST OUR INTERVIEW FROM 1997 – AS IT APPEARS IN MY BOOK, FRANK TALK: THE INSIDE STORIES OF ZAPPA'S OTHER PEOPLE (WYMER UK, 2017).
Steve Vai was initially employed by Zappa in 1978 to transcribe his recordings – “everything from lead sheets to orchestral scores." Some of these would be published in The Frank Zappa Guitar Book in 1982, by which time Zappa had recruited Vai as his stunt guitarist.
Vai can be seen, inter alia, in the The Torture Never Stops (2008) home video and heard on the albums Tinsel Town Rebellion (1981), You Are What You Is (1981), Ship Arriving Too Late To Save A Drowning Witch (1982), The Man From Utopia (1983), Them Or Us (1984), Thing-Fish (1984), Frank Zappa Meets The Mothers Of Prevention (1985) and more.
He released his debut album, Flex-Able, in 1984 after which he toured and recorded with Alcatrazz, David Lee Roth and Whitesnake – all the while carving out a hugely successful solo career.
Vai’s cover of Zappa's Sofa from the Zappa’s Universe album won a Grammy Award for best rock instrumental performance in 1994.
In 2006, he was of one of the three ‘sternly accomplished special guests’ on Dweezil Zappa's first Zappa Plays Zappa tour. In 2009, ZPZ and Vai won the best rock instrumental performance Grammy for their live rendition of Zappa's Peaches En Regalia.
He regularly performs with his former guitar tutor, Joe Satriani, as part of the G3 concert tours. It was when G3 played London's Shepherd’s Bush Empire on 4th June 1997 that Vai took time out from talking to various muso mags to shoot the breeze with me. At that time, Mike Keneally (MK) was in his band and he too joined us on the fat floating sofa in Vai's dressing room.
While waiting to meet the pair, I got to tell Satriani who Frankie Howerd and Tony Hancock were (their photos hang by the backstage door). Then, midway through the actual interview, Queen guitarist Brian May walked in and had to be ushered away by Vai.
All in all, a surreal experience for this author!
Most of us are aware of how you came to work with Frank, so I’ll by-pass all that. Tell me about the song Solitude, which you performed for Gail at the Zappa’s Universe rehearsals.
How do you know about that!?
I... er, have a tape of it.
Jeezus, how did that get out?
Mike Keneally: [laughs] You can’t stop it!
SV: It was a song that we rehearsed in the 1980 band. Frank had written it before then, but we had rehearsed it in an attempt to persuade Frank to play it – which you really can’t do.
It wasn’t a typical Zappa song.
It was the least typical Zappa song I ever heard. When I asked him if it was written for Gail, he said “No.” But I know it was because Gail told me it was.
Obviously it’s written for her!
It wasn’t actually recorded – just rehearsed?
Well I have heard a tape, I believe, of tracks for that song with the David Logeman[i] band – for the You Are What You Is album. We rehearsed it. Frank came in, as he does sometimes if he’s in a certain mood – he just started chopping songs from the list. We learned a hundred songs and that was one that got chopped.
But I remember Arthur Barrow had a cassette of it from rehearsal and years later I wanted to record it. I wanted to do something with it but Gail’s very sensitive about that song. It’s a very special song for her and rightly so.
Did you sing it at that time?
Yeah, I did. I got the tape from Arthur. I believe it was Arthur – it was either Arthur or Scott Thunes. I think it was maybe Scott Thunes. I can't even remember now!
Then I learned it and I did a little version of it for Gail at the sound check for Zappa's Universe. I totally blew it. I remember she just sat there with her hand over her mouth. But I talked to her about that song.
So probably it’ll never see the light of day officially?
Well there were other people that wanted to record it. But I think Gail wants Dweezil to record it first.
Are you still in touch with the family?
Occasionally. I was talking to Gail a few months ago before the G3 tour because we were gonna do My Guitar Wants To Kill Your Mama and I kind of wanted her blessing and I got it.
MK: Did you ever tell her I was singing on it?
SV: No [laughs] - why, you think she’d say don’t play it? I don’t think so.
[To Mike] I take it from that that you’re not so well in with the family these days?
MK: As far as I know they don’t wish to speak to me. I’ve talked to Ahmet a few times; he’s totally cool with me. But I think it’s Dweezil in particular who doesn’t really want to know about me.
That’s a shame.
[To Steve] You did a concert at the Eastman Concert Hall in New York with Joel Thome and a 60-piece orchestra last year[ii] – how did that go?
Well, the thing at Zappa's Universe went kinda good...
. . .you got a Grammy, didn’t you?
We got a Grammy for the performance of Sofa. It was a nice arrangement by Mike and Scott. So Joel and I talked about doing something else together.
Was it your own material that you played?
Yes, what we did then was my material. We did a couple of Frank’s songs and we did a piece by Joel.
Did it include Rescue Me Or Bury Me?[iii]
Oh, I really like that song.
Thanks. But it was a nice event. It was really hard to get it together. I worked really hard for a couple of years just getting the orchestrations together. The logistics of putting together an orchestra show are pretty staggering.
I understand there’s another one coming up in Israel?
There was, but it turned into a big disaster.[iv]
But you’ve actually written a long orchestral piece?
Well the thing is, it’s an avenue that I can walk down one of these days. I have all this material from the past that I’ve orchestrated – just pieces of music like For The Love Of God,[v] a couple of new things – but what I’d like to do is create a new piece for orchestra and rock band and have it performed. But you’re talking five months of undisturbed writing and then $200,000 to record it.[vi]
Are you two going to record together – you’ve obviously done the G3 stuff live, but are there plans to work in the studio?
MK: Yeah, I’m sure.
Is it something you’ve written yourself?
It’s this record I’m trying to put together with Epic. It’s all instrumental guitar. It has different players – Joe Satriani is on a track.[ix]
Something like Dweezil’s What The Hell Was I Thinking?
MK: But that’s all one song – this is a collection of different Christmas tunes.
SV: And we did Christmas Time Is Here, which is that Charlie Brown... [to Mike] who wrote that again?
MK: Vince Guaraldi[x] - it’s a beautiful song.
SV: It came out really good.
MK: We were actually playing it live on the tour that we did at the end of last year.
Do you have any plans to work with Terry Bozzio again?
Well, nothing in the near future. But I have tapes of Terry.
From the Vai band project?
Right before that, when Terry and I started hanging out.
A friend of mine owned a studio he was turning into a video-editing facility and he gutted it so it was like this 20,000 square foot room that had three floors in it. We set up Terry’s drums – he was wired for 48 track SSL – and I recorded three hours of Terry Bozzio improvising.
It’s some of the most wonderful stuff and I hope to take that one of these days and orchestrate around it.
Tommy Mars – still a friend?
Yeah. Mars, he’s an alien [laughs]. There’s few people that are as musical as he is.
He’s appeared on some of your solo stuff.[xi]
Yeah, but you can’t get Tommy Mars to come in and do little plinky piano stuff. He’s like a wild cat. You’ve got to put spurs on and ride that bucking bronco!
He of course has been involved with the Banned From Utopia.
MK: I think they actually ended up doing this thing Steve was gonna do in Israel.
Do you know what happened to Scott Thunes after the 1993 tour? I saw him on Top Of The Pops with the Waterboys, then he seems to have disappeared.
MK: If you can find a back issue – from about four months ago – of an American magazine called Bass Player, there’s a fairly lengthy interview with him called ‘Requiem For A Heavyweight’. It’s basically his farewell to the music business.
He has decided it’s caused him enough pain and he’s done now. So he’s just gotten re-married and he just wants to be a househusband.
The last couple of times I’ve seen him he seemed to be happier and more content than I’ve ever known him to be.
[To Steve:] Your time with Whitesnake – is that something you look back on fondly?
Well, when I was doing it I was enjoying it but afterwards it got kind of weird because I just started reading funny things in the press. Some of the guys were saying stuff.
Anyone in particular?
I don’t want to get into that. It was good when I was doing it because touring with a big rock arena band, you get treated like a king, first class everything, I made a ton of dough and I got to go on stage every night and act like a lunatic.
And you also did some of your own songs.
Yeah, my solo section was a good opportunity for me to promote Passion And Warfare.
But afterwards, because the record didn’t sell 14 million like the previous one,[xii] some people were a little upset about that. I have nothing bad to say about that. David Coverdale’s a total gentleman; we always got along real well.
I think he’s gone back to the bluesier stuff now.
Well, he’s making a blues record but, contrary to popular belief, that Whitesnake record that I did was the furthest thing from the blues [laughs]. [xiii]
Are you still friendly with Laurel Fishman?[xiv]
Oh yeah – she’s my best friend. She writes for a lot of magazines. She’s one of the best editors I’ve ever worked with.[xv]
Did you record an interview with her – or was it Frank – about the time of Stevie’s Spanking? There was talk of a lengthy tape.
I think Frank talked to her about that.
On Sex & Religion, Ahmet Zappa provided backing vocals – on just one track?
Yeah. There was another called Manic Panic, but it didn’t make it to the record.
But the best stuff I got of Ahmet is where he’s standing in the studio just talking [laughs]. He’s possessed, that guy. He’s really funny - totally out there.
MK: [laughs] He’s actually writing songs and rehearsing with a band apart from Dweezil now. He’ll get into a rehearsal studio every couple of months and work up a new batch of tunes. I’ve heard tapes of them and they’re good. Ahmet has tremendous potential as a front man.[xvi]
Yes, I was really impressed when I saw him with Dweezil at the Marquee in 1991, the first time he toured.
MK: He just keeps getting better. He’s taking a more serious attitude towards singing and the lyrics. He’s got a lot on his mind. As he gets older he starts to have more serious thoughts and the lyrics have really evolved from there.
Oh, that’s a long story. I have a stack of music: when I was on tour I would just write whenever I had an idea and I threw it in a pile. Then I would get my engineers – when they weren’t doing anything – to type them into the computer so I could hear them.
That’s how I discovered a lot of the songs that I have recorded – from these pieces of scrap paper.
So I listened to one of the tapes and I heard that melody [sings] and I thought “That’s kind of nice, I could make a song out of that”. I saw the manuscript and it had my name on it: it said Taurus Bulba. I remembered writing a song called Taurus Bulba; the melody was so familiar.
So I recorded this whole thing and I sent it to my manager and her boyfriend listened to it and said, “Yeah, that’s Bangkok.” She calls me up and she goes, “Is this Bangkok from Chess?” I said, “I’ve never heard any of that – that’s crazy. No, it’s just like a Russian folk dance.”
So she played it for me over the phone and I almost died. I thought I was in a dream – how did those guys get my music?
Then I realised what had happened: years ago, when I was with David Lee Roth, he gave me this tape – didn’t tell me what it was – and said, “Transcribe this. Let’s learn it and play it in the band between set changes.”
So I transcribed it and we only did it a few times. Then I took the music and threw it in my pile. I didn’t know the name of it or anything. So ten years later when I dug it out and listened to it, I couldn’t remember that was the event so I thought I wrote it. It’s a great melody – I thought it was too good to be mine!
A few years ago you mentioned you were going to remix and add some more ‘leftovers’ to the Flex-Able album.
Yes, that’s my next project. I want to release a box that has: Flex-Able remastered; Flex-Able Leftovers, with some tunes from the Passion And Warfare days; a remastering and licensing of the Alcatraz record; a disc that I want to put together of all the film cues that I’ve done...[xix]
...from Crossroads, Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey...?
Yeah and a bonus disc that’s sort of like Frank’s Lumpy Gravy album, all this talking and funny things.[xx]
MK: Most of which was recorded on the bus last night [laughs]!
SV: Yeah, when these guys got back in a drunken rage. Oh! Everybody: Mike Keneally. Wow! [laughs] Poor guy!
So, do you have a backlog of ‘leftovers’?
I’ve got a real, real lot of stuff. The fact is I just used to record, never thought I’d ever release it or that anyone would ever want to hear it.
Being signed to Epic Records, is that a problem – you can’t release as much as you’d like?
No, it’s not that. I just don’t have the time. The time to record it and finish it.[xxi] I’m touring so much and I have a family. No, with Epic I can record anything I want.
You mention your family – are your sons Julian and Fire going to record any more songs with you?[xxii]
We’re gonna find out, huh? I still have a lot of them on tape.
So, after the band project, the half instrumental/half song oriented Fire Garden, G3, the orchestral collaborations – what direction is Steve Vai heading off into next?
For my next proper studio record I want to really focus on the guitar and make it a guitar record. It’ll have vocals, but I want to try to sit back and think where will the guitar go from here – what’s the next evolutionary stage? I’m not talking about in the mundane pop world of the guitar. You know, a real development of the guitar. I want to try to saturate my consciousness in that frame of mind and see where that takes me and try to make it a reality.
I don’t know if it’ll be the be-all and end-all, but it should be fun to listen to. It’ll be fun to play![xxiii]
Okay, final question – tell me about the sample at the start of Kill The Guy With The Ball[xxiv] – where did that come from?
That’s not a sample! It’s a guitar going through a DSP 4000, an Eventide piece of gear. It’s a vocal filter that I constructed.
What it does is, you hit a note and it makes it go “Ai-yeh, ai-yeh, ai-yeh.” On top of that I have the whammy pedal, which takes the pitch and throws it around in octaves: “Ai-yeh, ai-yee, ai-yeh, AI-YEE, ai-yeh.”
So that’s with one foot and with the other I’m using the wah-wah.
So then you’ve got “Ai-yaw, wah-yee, ai-yeh, wah-yeh.” And then when I’ve got the whammy bar and I’m foxing with the notes: “Ai-yaw, ah-rai-uh, wuh-yehh-urr-yeh.”
That’s how I did it!
MK: That might be the next evolutionary step of the guitar [laughs]!
Interview conducted on Wednesday 4th June 1997
Photo of Steve at Tower Records, Piccadilly on November 23, 1993 taken by the Idiot Bastard.
[i] Zappa's drummer between March and July 1980, while Vinnie Colaiuta was otherwise engaged.
[ii] The Eastman School Orchestra, 28th September 1996.
[iii] From the Vai album Sex & Religion, 1993.
[iv] A concert went ahead in Jerusalem on 12th June 1997, but featured the Banned From Utopia performing Zappa material with the Shalom BSAL orchestra conducted by Thome.
[v] The seventh song from his album Passion And Warfare (1990).
[vi] Between mid-2004 and 2005, Vai collaborated with the Netherlands Metropole Orchestra, performing compositions, old and new. These are captured on the Sound Theories Vol. I & II double-live CD and Visual Sound Theories DVD, both released in 2007.
[vii] Merry Axemas: A Guitar Christmas (1997).
[viii] Between 1996 and 2001, Keneally toured and recorded extensively with Vai, appearing on his albums Flex-Able Leftovers (1998), The Ultra Zone (1999), The 7th Song (2000), Alive In An Ultra World (2001) and The Elusive Light and Sound, Vol. 1 (2002). In 2012 he was part of both the Vai and Satriani bands for a G3 tour of New Zealand and Australia.
[ix] Silent Night/Holy Night Jam.
[x] The song was written by both Lee Mendelson and Guaraldi for the 1965 TV special A Charlie Brown Christmas.
[xi] Mars appears on the Vai albums Flex-Able (1984), Alien Love Secrets (1995), Flex-Able Leftovers (1998) and Modern Primitive (2016).
[xii] 1987, which featured Aynsley Dunbar on drums.
[xiii] Dutch guitarist Adrian Vandenberg sustained a serious wrist injury prior to the recording of Whitesnake's Slip Of The Tongue album, for which he had co-written all of the songs with the band's founder and vocalist, David Coverdale. Coverdale brought in Vai to record all of the guitar parts, which Vandenberg felt inappropriate, believing a bluesy rather than flamboyant approach would have suited the album better. In 1990, the band toured with both Vandenberg and Vai in the line-up, after which Coverdale temporarily disbanded Whitesnake. All parties expressed some reservations about the album and tour, but Coverdale reappraised that chapter of Whitesnake when preparing the release of the ‘20th Anniversary Edition’ of the album (2009) and the Live At Donington 1990 CD/DVD (2011).
[xiv] According to Zappa, Fishman won a radio station contest in the early 1970s by describing how since hearing the song Call Any Vegetable, she had started using them "internally". When she showed up to meet Zappa, Fishman brought along a perfectly spherical ball of her own faeces in a mason jar. Some ten years later, Vai spent an evening with Fishman in a hotel room – an encounter Zappa describes in detail in the song Stevie's Spanking from the album Them Or Us (1984). Her voice can be heard on Vai's albums Flex-Able and Real Illusions – Reflections (2005).
[xv] Fishman specializes in entertainment media and reports regularly for GRAMMY.com.
[xvi] Ahmet played with the Idiot Sevilles and Leather Dynamite; the latter released a filthily funny album titled Testicular Manslaughter (2002), the cover of which bears a picture of sister Moon with a ballbag chin.
[xvii] A song from the musical Chess, written by Benny Andersson, Björn Ulvaeus and Tim Rice.
[xviii] Released in 1996.
[xix] In 2001, Vai produced ‘The Secret Jewel Box’ containing the CDs: The Elusive Light And Sound; Alcatrazz: Disturbing the Peace; and Archives Vol. 2: Original Recordings Of Frank Zappa. The box will house a total of 10 CDs (or eleven, if you count the interview disc hidden in its base): at the time of writing, Vai has yet to issue the final few: Alcatrazz: Panic Jungle (Live In Japan) and Hot Chunks.
[xx] This will be Hot Chunks, which purports to be the Box's most unusual component – a potpourri of music interspersed with conversations, source music and weird scenes from touring.
[xxi] As well as slowly filling up 'The Secret Jewel Box', Vai has now started issuing archival material via his download-only Vai-Tunes series.
[xxii] Julian provides baby vocals on Alien Love Secrets (1995) and spoken vocals on Fire Garden; Fire provides spoken vocals on Real Illusions: Reflections (2005) and was his father's personal tour assistant on 2015's The Story of Light World Tour.
[xxiii] His next album, The Ultra Zone (1999), was indeed largely instrumental and featured a homage to legendary guitarist Stevie Ray Vaughan (Jibboom) as well as Vai's former mentor, Zappa (Frank). It would be six years before he released another studio album of original material.
[xxiv] From Alien Love Secrets.