Steve Vai

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Steve Vai


Though aware that he dwells on the cultural fringes, Vai is grateful to have a cult following who have remained loyal throughout his artistic evolution. “Within my audience, there’s people who are interested in various aspects,” he explains. “Some are just into the guitar playing, and they don’t want to hear any distractions from that. Others prefer the tasteful stuff and don’t like the wanky guitar. Some people like the stuff with really eclectic production, and some like the esoteric nature of the rich compositional pieces. But the great thing is, those people’s interests seem to spill over into the other areas enough that they keep following what I’m doing.”

While Vai’s orchestral experiments began as a means of enhancing his own work, he has now become so respected as a composer that he is being commissioned by the orchestras themselves to pen works for them. His most recent composition, The Middle Of Everywhere, was performed in November by the North Netherlands orchestra to a reception that Vai describes as “frighteningly positive”.

“They were so impressed with it that I’ve been asked to provide orchestral pieces for two more years. Considering that these guys get three scores on their desk a week, and they play one new one a year, that is an extraordinary compliment. But also very time consuming!”, he laughs.

“At the moment, contemporary classical music is dying. The thing is, every kind of noise has been made, but most of it is unlistenable. Audiences are very small for contemporary stuff, and even audiences for the established classical stuff are dwindling. The orchestra needs a revitalisation, and they’re looking for new composers that are going to bring people in. I like the idea that I could do that; that I have the goods to create interesting, entertaining stuff within the orchestral format. But I still love the guitar and I’m always going to be doing that, too.”

If Vai has an Achilles heel as an artist, it is in the apparent difficulty he finds in keeping things simple; a difficulty that revealed itself yet again as he set down to work on his forthcoming solo album.

“I started out wanting to make a very straightforward record,” Vai explains. “Just stripped-down guitar stuff, kind of like Alien Love Secrets. But I just couldn’t stick to that plan!” He laughs ruefully. “I just kept hearing more parts in my head, and all these pieces of music that seemed to have more to them. So maybe I’ll do a stripped down record soon, but this one’s pretty dense. It’s a little too early for me to name it, but I’m hoping to make it the next instalment of the Real Illusions trilogy.”

Vai will soon join Joe Satriani in Australia for G3 2012, a semi-regular tour in which three respected guitarists play individual sets, before jamming together. Compared to his own touring and recording projects, Vai regards G3 as “a great way to just cruise”, and describes his enduring friendship with Satriani (in typically esoteric fashion) as “a confirmation of my belief in Karma, and the laws of attraction, and that life is really a magical journey”.

Despite their tight-knit relationship, it could be observed that the career paths of Vai and Satriani, who historically share a common fan base, have never been more different. While Vai has spent the last decade aggressively pushing the envelope, (possibly at the expense of some of his commercial profile), Satriani has, arguably, veered closer to the mainstream, even achieving some surprising chart success with his ‘supergroup’ project Chickenfoot (featuring ex-Van Halen frontman Sammy Hagar).

When asked if he believes he has separated artistically from his mentor, Vai readily agrees… though, in his understanding, this separation occurred 30 years ago. “The thing is, I don’t think we’ve ever seen ourselves as going in a similar direction,” Vai says. “People group us together, because we both play guitar at a certain level, and both make instrumental records… but our records are SO different. You couldn’t compare my first solo record, Flex-able, to anything Joe’s ever done, and you couldn’t compare Surfing With The Alien to anything I’ve ever done. In our minds, we’re worlds apart.”

 “If there’s any element of our style where we find common ground – and it’s something that we learned together, in a sense – it’s our ability to listen to people when we’re playing with them. It’s when we’re just sitting and playing guitar together that our minds really ‘meld’.”

While Vai and Satriani have had a chance to ‘mind-meld’ on almost every G3 tour since 1996, (Vai confirms he has never turned down one of Satriani’s invitations to participate) the ‘third G’ has been consistently different, ensuring that each incarnation of the tour has had a slightly different flavour. Noteworthy G3 alumni include prog-rock icon Robert Fripp, metalman John Petrucci of Dream Theater, and neo-classical shred king Yngwie Malmsteen.

By contrast, the guitar slinger joining Satch and Vai this year is probably more famous for not specialising in any particular genre. Indeed, Steve Lukather’s chameleonic approach to the instrument has made him quite possibly the most sought-after session guitarist of all time.

“His notes seem to sneak around you…” Vai says of Lukather. “They crawl up the ankle of your pants, and before you know it they’re gnawing on your fingers,” he laughs. “Luke’s just a fun guy. An amazing guy. He’s very talented obviously, and to know him is really to love him. He’s just got this very funny personality, and loves the instrument. And you know, he’s one of those guys that wakes up in the morning and just practises… Still!”