Q&A with Steve Vai on 'The Story of Light,' David Lee Roth: Part 1 of 2

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August 20, 2012 at 3:25 pm Quote #18399



Q&A with Steve Vai on ‘The Story of Light,’ David Lee Roth: Part 1 of 2
August 19, 2012
By: Justin Tedaldi

A native of Carle Place, Long Island, three-time Grammy Award winner Steve Vai’s discography encompasses over 60 albums, including high-profile ax-slinging gigs with rock giants like Frank Zappa, David Lee Roth and Whitesnake. Vai is also the founder of the Favored Nations Entertainment label, designed the legendary Ibanez JEM guitar, and established the Make a Noise Foundation to provide instruments and music education to young musicians without means.

His new solo album is The Story of Light, a sprawling opus that continues a conceptual and cosmic narrative arc begun on the 2005 disc Real Illusions: Reflections (also Vai’s most recent solo studio release). This second part of an epic musical trilogy features instrumentals that are both explosive and intimate, with guest vocalists Aimee Mann and Beverly McClellan, a season one finalist on The Voice. Vai’s world tour kicked off just last week in Fort Lauderdale, and swings up to New York’s Best Buy Theater Sept. 11.

In this exclusive, expansive interview, I spoke with the guitar hero about his trailblazing tour plans, the hit albums he waxed with David Lee Roth and Whitesnake, and his thoughts on Van Halen’s reunion and new studio record with Diamond Dave.

Q: Let’s talk about the David Lee Roth years when you joined the band. Bassist Billy Sheehan said that Steve Stevens of Billy Idol was originally considered for the guitar player of that group, and it didn’t work out. Do you know if anyone else was in the running before you came aboard?

A: There were some other guys, but I don’t remember who they were. When I came in, I think I was the only one at the time that was being considered. I think they had spoken to a couple of guys. I don’t know if they had ever gotten together with them, but when I was there I was just like, “Okay, if you like it, here it is.” (Laughs)

Q: What was your songwriting process with Dave like? Were there any similarities that he might have mentioned to you that compared with how he worked with Van Halen?

A: In a band situation, usually everyone’s contribution is accepted. When I was with Dave–I’m not exactly sure how they did it with Van Halen–I would come in with riffs or a song, or maybe somebody in the band would come in with a song, and Dave would either like it or not, and then we’d present him another song, and we’d work on it a bit and maybe shape it, and then at some point once the track was done, or at least written, Dave would take it and write lyrics.

Q: What did Frank Zappa think of your work with Dave? Did you ever discuss that with him?

A: No. I never heard Frank comment on my work with Dave Roth, but he did say that I should invite Dave over his studio sometime.

Q: That would have been interesting.

A: Yeah. Oddly enough, the first time I ever met Edward [Van Halen] was back in the ’80s when I was in Frank’s band, and Edward was a big Frank fan. I had met Edward at a club and he found out I was with Frank. I gave him my phone number and said, “If you ever want to meet Frank, I’m sure he would be interested in seeing you.” He called me the next day–it was so bizarre, and he went up to the house and we all jammed. It was really cool.

Q: I wonder what became of that.

A: I don’t think it was recorded.

Q: Regarding the song “Yankee Rose,” were there actually any words ever considered or written for that guitar conversation you had with Dave for that?

A: Yeah, there were some words I was thinking in my mind, but I can’t remember what they were. Something silly, you know. “David?” (Laughs)

Q: It’s a great way to start a cut.

A: Yeah. When I joined the band–I have a very quirky, esoteric guitar nature, but I’m also a big fan of rock and metal. So when I joined that band, or any band that I join, I assess the situation and I come to grips with what I think the appropriate contribution would be, but I also have to be myself at some point. So in opening up the record and doing “Yankee Rose,” I thought, What can I do here that’s completely preposterous that’s very me but still has rock and roll integrity and people will get a kick out of it? And I always have the talking guitar thing in my arsenal, so it was the perfect opportunity to pull it.

Q: The song “Ladies’ Nite in Buffalo?” has been called a real artistic achievement for Dave, and the lyrics are really interesting. Do you have any memories of how that song came together?

A: I had written that song and I had demoed it, and when I demoed it it had all of these guitars, all of these textures and keyboards, and Dave really liked it. When we took it into the studio, [producer] Ted Templeman said, “Okay, let’s lay down a basic track. Just go out there and play live as a guide guitar.” I thought, “There’s a lot of parts–how am I going to make them all work on one guitar?” [The guide guitar's] intention was that it was going to be built up with all these other layers and stuff later, and Ted goes, “Well, there it is!” So that’s the part and that’s the song. There was a real kind of beautiful rawness and an in-your-face kind of intimacy that was much different from the very produced version that I had done. That’s how it turned out.

Q: Do you have any idea what the title is supposed to refer to, with the question mark?

A: Exactly what it is…ladies’ nite in Buffalo, New York. That’s what it’s about, I guess (laughs). You’d probably be better off asking Dave.

Q: The lyrics for the song “Big Trouble” are also open-ended. You could take it as a story of character sketches.

A: That’s the nice thing about lyrics. There’s lyricists who will create images, and the listener is left to their own imagination to put them together. I can’t speak for Dave, but I think that that was relatively influenced by his like of Tom Waits.

Q: Talking about other debates in rock circles, people are always analyzing whether the original Eat ‘em and Smile band was better musically than the original lineup of Van Halen. What are your thoughts about this?

A: “Better” is such a subjective term, you know? I just don’t respond to these competitive comparisons. They’re useless and meaningless, because if it’s better for one person and not for another, then they’re both right. Your opinion is the important thing. You can never deny the immense talent, rock credibility and iconic historical contribution that Van Halen made. And Edward Van Halen is a guitar god of the highest order. I have immense respect and love for Edward, you know? I would probably be playing the guitar very differently if he never came along. He’s a totally inspired person.

When we started Eat ‘em and Smile, Dave got the best musicians he could, who he thought was the best. And I thought it was a hell of a band. It was one of my favorite times in my whole musical career, because we were rock stars, you know? And touring with somebody like Dave, you can’t even imagine what it was like. It was just glorious, man. And I knew it was fleeting, and I knew it was something that I wasn’t going to be doing my whole life, because my brand of music in my own head is very different. So, if you like Van Halen better than the Eat ‘em and Smile band, then you’re right. And if I like Eat ‘em and Smile better than Van Halen, then I’m right. But I don’t like one better than the other. The Eat ‘em and Smile band was fierce. And that’s it.

Q: A lot of people like to adopt a sports mentality when it comes to this. They want to have winners.

A: Yeah, I know. And you know what, it’s a big fuc*ing bore after a while.

Q: Sports is sports, but there’s all kinds of music out there.

A: It’s part of the process. We all have egos, and if a person responds to something that’s really interesting to them, their ego tells them this is better than everything else, and I’m right and you’re wrong. That’s something that if a person can get over, they’ll lift a big burden off their back. Because then you can appreciate everything…it doesn’t mean that vanilla is better than pistachio (laughs). If you’re playing basketball, if you get the most hoops, you with the game and you’re the best. It’s very different from music.

Q: For Van Halen now, what are your thoughts about their reunion with Dave and the last studio record they put out, A Different Kind of Truth?

A: I was really happy to hear how great Edward was playing. I mean, I was afraid he was losing it; we were all concerned. But I think that he’s in really great form. As a matter of fact, he sounds as good as he ever has to me, and frankly, I’m hearing Dave hit notes that he couldn’t hit when I was recording him. And I think the record is really powerful–it’s kinetic. I can’t listen to the whole thing at one time because it’s almost too powerful, in a way. But I’m happy with it. I’m really happy for them and I’m glad to see them doing it.

In part two tomorrow, Steve tells all about Skyscraper, Whitesnake, and why he’ll NEVER pen a tell-all book.

August 20, 2012 at 5:00 pm Quote #18400


Thanks for that. Say what you will about Vai, but his take on what music is better is spot on.

August 20, 2012 at 9:22 pm Quote #18409


Thanks… that was a real interesting read. Always wondered the truth behind Vai leaving Roth? As for that matter, why Sheehan left as well?

Really loved that band, was very disappointed when Sheehan, and then Vai left Dave. I started to think Dave was really an asshole, sort of like what Ed was slinging after he left Van Halen.

The poor folks play for keeps down here…They’re the living dead. Nobody rules these streets at night like Van Halen!!


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